Monday, October 13, 2014

Puget Sound Civil War Roundtable

I had a great time talking to the Puget Sound Civil War Roundtable last week.  Seattle is one of my favorite places, so when they contacted me about speaking, I jumped at the chance. My presentation covered the Petersburg Campaign with a focus on the battles in October 1864.  The meeting was welcoming, informal, and, well, fun.  The Q&A session demonstrated the depth of knowledge in the room.   

Pat Brady, the program coordinator, kindly took me to lunch before the meeting.  Among other things, we discussed his ongoing Cold Harbor campaign book project.  From the sound of it, this should be a substantial, thorough work, backed by years of dogged research and thoughtful reflection.  During our chat, we touched on Grant's expectations for the May 1864 campaign, Lee's offensive-defensive approach, Meade's strained relationship with Grant, and the challenges of writing a battle study.  It was a great time and a great trip.  

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

October 7, 1864: Waud's Sketch at the New Market Road

In recognition of the 150th anniversary of the October 7, 1864 fighting along the Darbytown and New Market Roads, here's a look at a sketch drawn by combat artist William Waud that day.

Waud, W. "The battle of the Darbytown Road," (LOC)
On October 7, 1864, Robert E. Lee launched an offensive in Henrico County to regain ground lost to Union forces a week before. In essence, Lee sought to recapture Fort Harrison, a key stronghold in the lines east of Richmond. The Confederate operation began encouragingly when Charles Field's infantry division, aided by South Carolina cavalry, routed August Kautz's Union horsemen positioned at Dr. Johnson's Farm near the Darbytown Road. After this modest victory, Lee's force pushed south and attacked Union infantry positions at the New Market Road.  Once again, Field's men led the way. However, the effort ultimately failed.

Before Field's battle lines pressed the assault, a fierce artillery duel occurred between the rebel First Corps guns of Porter Alexander and Union Tenth Corps batteries hurriedly wheeled into new defenses edging the New Market Road. William Waud was there to witness these events and prepared this sketch looking north from behind the Union guns toward the approaching Confederates.

Detail (left half of drawing)
Detail (right half of drawing)

The map below shows Waud's approximate location, along with his view from behind the Tenth Corps line. The area depicted lies about six miles southeast of downtown Richmond. Fort Harrison, Lee's target for the operation, is about a mile southwest of the map's bottom left-hand corner. Waud's position was probably near the intersection of the modern day Gregg and Lammrich Roads, just north of the New Market Road. Lammrich Road roughly tracks part of the Union defense line on October 7, 1864. To the north, the Johnson House site (shown on the map below) sits today on Henrico County's Dorey Park. The Richmond airport is about a mile north of map's top edge. 
Waud's perspective from behind the Union guns  (LOC)

The eyewitness sketches of Waud and his fellow combat artists provide rare windows into the Civil War battlefield. On close examination, this particular drawing furnishes some interesting details about the fighting on October 7, 1864.

#1 Alexander's Guns:  On the left, in the distance across a cornfield, smoke rises from the tubes of Porter Alexander's guns at the Kell House. Alexander had driven his batteries south from Darbytown Road using a maneuver known as "fire advancing by half battery." In essence, half his guns fired while the other half leapfrogged past. At the Kell property, Alexander halted, unlimbered all his pieces, and began firing at the Union line. The day after the battle, a Union cavalryman examined the spot and found that the rebels had dug small holes for cover.
#1  Alexander's guns at the Kell House

#2.  Tenth Corps Artillery:  At the bottom center, Waud drew four guns from the Union Tenth Corps artillery brigade commanded by Richard H. Jackson. Jackson deployed several batteries for the fight behind newly erected works just north along the New Market Road. Waud did not identify the unit depicted in the drawing.  During the battle, Union artillerists used two unusual "Requa" guns, which had twenty-five .58 caliber barrels mounted in a row at the top of a platform. However, these do not appear in the drawing. In addition, the Federals wheeled two pieces from Battery D, 1st U.S. Artillery out into the cornfield in front of the works seen here. Those guns received much attention from Alexander's men.
#2. Tenth Corps artillery

#3.  Corn Stalks:  Waud etched in some corn stalks only several feet behind the gun crews along the new line, revealing just how new these works were.
#3. Corn stalks just behind the Federal works

#4.  Union Infantry:  On the lower right, infantry of the Tenth Corps crouch behind the works, waiting for the Confederate attack. The federal fortifications stretched to the right of the sketch only for a short distance. The position taken by the Tenth Corps troops extended much farther. Thus, much of the Union battle line fought without cover in largely wooded terrain. The men shown here are likely from Colonel Francis B. Pond's brigade, which contained regiments from Illinois, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

#4. Infantry from Pond's Brigade

#5.  Lee's Men Darbytown Road:  In the distance, through a gap in the trees, Waud has labeled the Darbytown Road, where Lee's forces overran Kautz's weak cavalry force at the Johnson Farm that morning. If you look closely at the base of the tree line in the distance, it appears Waud has penciled in Lee's infantry gathering for their attack. Given the open ground and formidable Union artillery presence, the Confederate infantry veered toward the woods to the right (of the drawing) and into a difficult swamp, which caused much delay in the advance. Today, trees and houses block this view but the sketch reveals how open this part of the Henrico landscape was in 1864.
#5. The Darbytown Road and Lee's infantry

#6.  Recently Cleared Field:  The sketch also shows the area in front of the trenches recently cleared by Union troops.  Federal skirmishers used the stumps and felled trees for cover as Field's men advanced. The Texas brigade, from Field's division, found the slashing difficult to navigate for it poked at their "eyes, faces, bodies, and clothing."  
#6. Recently cleared field of fire

#7.  Confederate Attack:  Following the artillery duel, Field's attack emerged from the woods to the right and along a front that extended far to the right of the sketch's frame. Thus, the battle lines stood facing each other in woods covering much of the area to the right. 
#7. Woods from which Charles Field's Confederate division emerged
Many of the Union regiments in this battle carried Spencer repeating rifles. These weapons proved decisive, crushing the Confederate attack and quickly ending the offensive. Waud also drew this sketch (below) of the open fighting in those woods during the Confederate attack. 

"The fighting was done in thick woods. Our men shewn[sic] in this sketch are armed with the Spencer Rifle." (W. Waud, LOC)


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Zebulon Vance Papers: "Fight the Yankees and fuss with the Confederacy"

The Papers of Z.B. Vance, Vols. 1-3
I couldn't resist the sale.  As a result, these three volumes showed up at my door recently. Published by the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, the titles are the result of decades of work by historians Frontis W. Johnston, Gordon McKinney, Richard M. McMurry, and Joe A. Mobley. Johnston edited the first letterpress volume, which appeared in 1963.  McKinney and McMurry worked to transfer all the Vance Papers onto 39 microfilm reels.  Mobley then assumed responsibility for the project in 1991 and piloted the 2nd (1995) and 3rd (2013) letterpress volumes to publication, bringing the published collection through 1865. Mobley also wrote an excellent biography of Vance in 2005, which focuses on the war years. (War Governor of the South: North Carolina's Zeb Vance in the Confederacy (Univ. Press of Florida)).

At the helm of North Carolina’s war effort during much of the conflict, Zebulon Baird Vance presented an imposing figure with his six foot, two-hundred pound frame, and his tuft of thick, black hair. He was a natural, engaging politician, whose charm and wit were difficult to match. He was also a commanding speaker. Historians have found an enigmatic figure in Vance. Initially a unionist like many in the upper south, he strongly embraced the Confederate cause once the bell of secession rang. As Governor during much of the war, he often quarreled with authorities in Richmond. He took issue with Confederate policies that limited individual rights in his state as well as with measures that hamstrung North Carolina's efforts designed, in his view, to win the war. His frequent clashes with President Jefferson Davis have led some over the years to label him an obstructionist to the Confederate war effort.


Z. B. Vance
However, despite appearances, Vance remained a Confederate nationalist throughout the conflict and kept his eye on the broad picture and his focus on preserving the Confederacy's defining institution.  In an unpublished autobiography prepared after the war and brought to light by Joe Mobley a few years ago, Vance candidly explained, “I concluded therefore to go with my state and to fight - not for secession - not for the Confederate States [as] an object desirable in itself - but to avert the consequences - the abolition of Slavery." See Mobley, Joe A., “Zebulon Vance: A Confederate Nationalist in the North Carolina Gubernatorial Election of 1864,” The North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. LXXVII, No. 4 (October 2000).  Thus, his many disagreements with officials in Richmond appear to reflect discord about tactics, not overall goals.  Indeed, his platform during the 1864 gubernatorial election was sometimes referred to as: "Fight the Yankees and fuss with the Confederacy."

These volumes are heavy. I look forward to spending more time with them over the next few months.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Family Reunion Tour in Richmond

"I know it's in here somewhere . . ."
In July, we attended a family reunion down in Richmond.  This year, I found myself on the weekend's program, leading a tour of some of the Civil War battlefield sites in Henrico County.  We walked through the fall 1864 battles beginning our discussion at Fort Harrison and finishing up at Dorey Park along the Darbytown Road.

Our small band included some Rogers, some Hoheisels, a Paule, and a Goin. Among other things, we talked about Benjamin Butler, the bad and the good; the dysfunctional command partnership of Charles Field and Robert Hoke; and the heroics of Joseph Banks Lyle on the Williamsburg Road.  It turned out to be quite an enjoyable couple of hours. I had a blast.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A New Mahone Biography?

William Mahone (LOC)
Over at the Civil War Memory blog, Kevin Levin recently posted some interesting news about a new William Mahone biography.

Mahone stands as one of the war's more intriguing figures.  A native Virginian and prewar railroad executive, he failed to shine at brigade command through the first few years of the war.  However, in 1864, he enjoyed significant success at Petersburg, leading his division in a series of sharp counterattacks against Union offensives. After the war, Mahone resumed his railroad career and became a major figure in Virginia politics.  Among other things, he emerged as a key leader of the Readjuster Party, an unlikely coalition of white and black Republicans.  His reformist political activities nudged him out of the pantheon of Confederate heroes erected by Lost Cause architects.

Near the end of his life in the 1890's, Mahone shared his recollections of several battles with George S. Bernard of Petersburg - the reminiscences covered Seven Pines, Malvern Hill, the Weldon Railroad, Burgess Mill, and Appomattox.  These accounts, most of them unknown until recently, were published in Civil War Talks.  

Mahone was a prolific correspondent and his papers are housed in several locations, including the Library of Virginia and Duke University.  The Mahone collection at Duke is massive, large enough to discourage even the most tenacious researcher. To date, the only lengthy Mahone biography is Nelson M. Blake's work, published in 1935. Since then, scholars have touched on Mahone and the Readjusters.   For example, Jane Dailey examined the turbulent world of late 19th century Virginia politics in Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (UNC Press, 2000).  A few years ago, Kevin Levin wrote an essay titled "William Mahone, the Lost Cause and Civil War History" for the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography.  However, an updated full-length biography is sorely needed.

Happily, a recent dissertation written by John F. Chappo when he was at the University of Southern Mississippi is under review at an academic press, as noted by Levin's post and Chappo's own webpage.  Let's hope things work out.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Richmond Must Fall in The N.C. Historical Review


Some of my NCHR back issues
The April 2014 issue of the North Carolina Historical Review (NCHR) has a nice review of Richmond Must Fall.   Over the last several months, I've explored the back issues of this journal, poring over several excellent articles about the Civil War in eastern North Carolina.  So, I was happy to see a review of my book tucked into the pages of a recent edition.  Michael W. Coffey, of the N.C. Office of Archives and History, prepared the piece, which furnishes a concise and comprehensive overview of the book.  The review also emphasizes that Richmond Must Fall extends beyond its focus on military strategy to address the political issues looming over the fighting in October 1864, the impact of the battles on local civilians, and the USCT prisoner controversy that ignited at the time.

Coffey concludes:  "Richmond Must Fall is a worthwhile addition to the field of Civil War military literature, not only in covering a neglected portion of a complex campaign, but also in illustrating its importance to the political side of the war . . . . [It] thus successfully integrates several diverse topics into a readable and useful narrative about a particular crucial phase of the war."