Review: Tempest At Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly

by Brett Schulte on November 18, 2005 · 0 comments

http://www.brettschulte.net/ACWBooks/2ndBullRun.htm

Tempest At Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly. David A. Welker. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press (2002). 279 pp. 11 maps.

This is a review and summary of David A. Welker’s Tempest at Ox Hill: The Battle of Chantilly. Mr. Welker’s book is one of three on the Battle of Chantilly that appeared from 2002-2003. The others include Paul Taylor’s He Hath Loosed the Fateful Lightning: The Battle of Ox Hill and Charles V. Mauro’s The Battle of Chantilly (Ox Hill: A Monumental Storm). After having read the books by Mr. Taylor and Mr. Welker (and after hearing that Mr. Mauro’s book is less than 100 pages long), I have come to the conclusion that Welker’s book comes the closest to being a definitive study of the battle. This is not to say that Paul Taylor’s book is “bad” in any way. It is in fact a very solid tactical history of the battle. I just feel that Welker’s study brings the most to the table, and that if you had to spend your hard-earned money on only one book, Welker’s should be it. The Battle of Chantilly, contested on September 1, 1862 between the forces of Stonewall Jackson’s Wing of the Army of Northern Virginia and the divisions of Isaac Stevens and Phil Kearny of the Army of the Potomac, was a battle that cost the Union the services of the aforementioned division commanders. In giving their lives, Kearny and Stevens had also prevented Robert E. Lee from interposing the Army of Northern Virginia between Pope’s Union forces and the Union capital. This is a tactical level study of the battle, but it also contains an entire chapter dedicated to the lives of Kearny and Stevens before fate brought them together at Ox Hill. Welker succeeds admirably in presenting a readable and definitive work on the battle. The included maps are not the best that I’ve seen, but they do a good job in letting the reader understand the text. Welker finishes the book with a concluding chapter detailing the many different ways you can “win” a battle, focusing of course on Chantilly in this case. Anyone interested in the war in the east, especially the Second Manassas Campaign, will want to pick this one up.

In chapter one, Welker discusses the events leading up to the Battle of Chantilly. He starts in May 1862 by discussing Jackson’s famous Valley Campaign. The troops which would eventually form Pope’s Army of Virginia were the unwilling foils to Jackson’s brilliant strategic maneuvers. It was Jackson’s feats that caused Lincoln and his cabinet to decide to create a unified command to prevent another debacle from occurring in the Valley. This command went to John Pope in late June 1862. In addition, Henry Halleck was appointed General-in-Chief, thus demoting McClellan from his command of the Army of the Potomac. Needless to say, McClellan was less than thrilled with these events. He had wanted to use Pope’s troops in his own Peninsula Campaign, and Halleck’s appointment meant he was no longer General-in-Chief. Welker goes on to describe the Campaign of Second Manassas in surprising detail. The first chapter is 25 pages long, and due to a quirky page layout with skinny margins all around, that’s a lot of material for background. As the chapter ends, the Union Army is licking its wounds at Centreville on the night of August 30, and Lee is already looking for ways around Pope.

Welker next details the lives of Philip Kearny and Isaac Stevens, the two promising Union commanders who lost their lives at Chantilly. Despite sharing little in common in their lives, both of these men were hard fighters with bright futures. Stevens had graduated first in his class at West Point, and Kearny, despite being prevented from attending West Point by his grandfather, eventually found himself a veteran of many fights, both foreign and domestic. Each man almost definitely knew of the other, but they might have only first met on the Union right at Second Bull Run. These men led from the front because they knew no other way to lead men than to literally LEAD them. This personal courage, some would say recklessness, caught up with both of them on September 1, 1862.

“Movements and Machinations” covers the first half of the day following the Battle of Second Bull Run. Pope’s Army was at Centreville, Virginia, behind formidable fortifications. Most were miserable after their defeat of the day before. Welker stresses the importance of Pope’s line, saying, “The size and flexibility of Pope’s force would have made any army commander jealous. Indeed, he had two entire corps in his reserve and yet still had a solid defensive line.” Lee sent Jackson on a flanking march first north up Gum Springs Road, and then ESE down the Little River Turnpike. This important road led to Fairfax Courthouse and an intersection with the Warrenton Turnpike. Pope would need to use the Warrenton Turnpike to retreat to Washington, and Lee hoped to get Jackson interspersed between the Federal Army and their Capital. Pope spent the first half of August 31st utterly oblivious to Jackson’s march.

Stonewall Jackson and his vaunted Foot Cavalry began their flanking march from Sudley Church around noon on August 31. However, on this particular day, Jackson’s men weren’t marching at the usual rapid pace. The men had been marching for weeks and had just fought intense battles over the last three days. To make matters worse, food was scarce with no prospect for relief any time this day. And to add icing to the cake, it rained all day and turned the roads to quagmires. A.P. Hill’s Light Division led the way, followed by Lawton’s and Starke’s Divisions. Fitz Lee’s Cavalry Brigade was even farther out front and protected Jackson’s right flank once he turned to the southeast and marched down the Little River Turnpike. The Confederate Cavalry managed to capture parts of two Union Cavalry Regiments out guarding Pope’s right flank that day, but enough men escaped to warn Pope later that night of the massive threat building on his flank. As Jackson began his march, Pope was detailing troops to guard his massive wagon train as it retreated east to Washington. Incredibly, he pulled two regiments and two guns from his defensive force under Torbert at Jermantown. Part of Marsena Patrick’s Brigade was also sent with the train as it slowly made its way east along Warrenton Turnpike. Stuart and two other Cavalry Brigades joined Fitz Lee’s men later that day and together they tested the Union defenses west of Jermantown along Difficult Run. Stuart believed this line too tough to crack with cavalry. Instead, he brought up some artillery and shelled the massive Union wagon train to the south on Warrenton Turnpike as night came on. Welker believes this was a major mistake.

Just after midnight, Pope was informed of the shelling of his wagon train. This attack came on one of only two available retreat routes, but Pope, following a typical pattern by not fully trusting cavalry reports, decided that surely other sightings would have come in if Lee were flanking him. Pope did send a reconnaissance north towards the Little River Turnpike on a fairly wide front, and he also reinforced Jermantown at this time. It had stopped raining on the morning of September 1, but the day was cloudy and it looked like more rain was on the way. Dana’s Brigade (commanded by Edward Hinks) reached Jermantown, and Welker believes that Jermantown was finally able to be properly defended at this point. Just after dawn, Jackson began his own march down the Little River Turnpike. He reversed his marching order of the day before, allowing Starke to lead, and having Lawton and Hill follow. Jackson’s men were hungry, the wet road was a mess, Longstreet was nowhere near, and Jackson was worried about what he might run into, so the march was very slow. Jackson also ordered Stuart to scout ahead. A fight developed along Stringfellow Road between Starke’s Brigade and Howard’s Brigade around 11:20 A.M. Howard, following orders not to bring on a general engagement, retreated. Through some mix-up, Beverly Robertson’s Cavalry Brigade, thought to be scouting on Jackson’s right front, stayed with Starke. This resulted in no cavalry screen for Jackson in that important area. Pope knew now that he had to retreat. He sent yet another dispatch to Halleck asking what he should do.

Before his reconnaissance patrols could even report back, Pope received word from tow cavalrymen that they had seen Confederate infantry at Chantilly, which placed them in his rear, even farther east than his reconnaissance! Pope knew that if the Confederates reached Fairfax Courthouse (just east of Jermantown), his defenses at Centreville would be useless. Pope, still trying to save his career, did not want to retreat unless given an order from Halleck. Due to this, Pope played a dangerous game. He gambled that he could hold Lee at Jermantown while waiting for an order from Halleck to retreat. Welker points out that if Lee moved too fast or Halleck too slow, Pope could well have a disaster on his hands. Pope selected the III Corps of the Army of Virginia and the IX Corps to play his game. The III Corps would move to Jermantown to strengthen the forces there to the point of being able to hold off a potential attack by Lee, and the IX Corps would move to cover the Warrenton Turnpike east of Centreville in case the Confederates headed south to cut that route instead of attacking Jermantown. Pope actually visited Fitz-John Porter, commander of the Army of the Potomac’s V Corps and good friend of McClellan, for advice at this time. Welker says that Pope hoped to get the McClellanites to agree to a retreat. When this tactic didn’t work, Pope returned to his tent. Pope, reacting to the threat at Chantilly, ordered the III Corps to support Stevens in front of the force near Chantilly. However, Pope apparently never told Stevens of this support. In addition, Heintzelman apparently never told his division commanders where they were headed. Confusion reigned in high places, and this reflects poorly on Pope. Hooker, the temporary commander at Jermantown, received some reinforcements and decided to make his defense along Difficult Run, just west of the town. Jackson and Stuart probed this line and skirmishing broke out for a few hours. However, about this time, Jackson became aware of a threat to his right flank. It was Stevens, following orders to protect the Warrenton Turnpike from attack. Lee was near the battlefield that day, but he didn’t participate. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that both hands were still in splints. Regardless, this was Jackson’s fight. To counter the threat from the Federals to his south, Jackson moved Branch’s and Field’s Brigades south of Little River Turnpike through some woods that fronted an open field on the east, and a corn field on the west.

Stevens moved east from Centreville around 3 P.M. with the IX Corps. Jesse Reno was sick, leaving Stevens in charge. He soon was led north on a country road by two Cavalrymen who had earlier seen Confederates in the vicinity of Chantilly. Leaving Ferrero’s Brigade to guard the Warrenton Turnpike, Stevens moved north. Kearny’s and Hooker’s III Corps divisions left Centreville about an hour later, also traveling down Warrenton Turnpike in an easterly direction. Soon enough, Stevens came to the Unfinished Railroad (the same one which had figured so prominently in the Second Manassas fighting) and saw Confederate skirmishers to the north on Ox Hill. Stevens immediately ordered skirmishers to advance, and then formed his three-brigade Division into a column of Brigades. In other words, each brigade was in line, with succeeding brigades directly behind the first. Stevens launched his attack in an effort to prevent whatever offensive designs the Confederates had in mind, whether they were to the east and Jermantown or to the south and Warrenton Turnpike. At this point Jesse Reno arrived. Though he didn’t necessarily have much hope for the success of Stevens’s plan, he allowed it to proceed. As Stevens’s Division moved forward around 4:30 P.M., Reno sent Ferrero’s Brigade into some woods to the east of Ox Road to provide them with some support. Stevens’s men, caught out in the open, suffered heavy casualties and started to waver. At this point, Stevens headed for the front. Ferrero’s supporting brigade also ran into the Confederates. The 21st Massachusetts stumbled into an ambush and lost nearly 100 men from only one volley. This event would have dire consequences later in the day. After some widening of his front, he personally led a charge around 5 P.M. that broke Hays’ Louisiana Brigade (led by Col. Henry Forno). At this point, Stevens was shot in the temple and killed instantly, wrapped in the flag of his 79th New York Highlanders. However, three regiments of Jubal Early’s Brigade stopped the breakthrough and sent Stevens’ now-leaderless division streaming for the rear. Throughout the fight it had been raining heavily. By this time it was approximately 5:30 P.M.

Camp Pope Publishing

Phil Kearny was the only man to come to Isaac Stevens’ rescue that day. When Stevens’ aide Lt. Belcher finally rode up to Kearny after several rejections, Kearny enthusiastically replied, “By God, I will support Stevens anywhere!” Birney’s large Brigade was in the lead, and Kearny led these men and a battery of artillery north to the sound of the guns. Jackson took the time during this lull in the fighting to rearrange A.P. Hill’s lines and erase the angle from his line. Birney advanced north en echelon into the cornfield from left to right. About a third of the way through, Birney’s men stopped and engaged in a firefight with several of Hill’s brigades, but the thunderstorm caused quite a few guns to misfire. Chantilly is known for the large number of hand-to-hand fights that occurred. A.P. Hill asked Jackson if his command could be relieved due to wet ammo. Jackson’s reply? The Yankees have wet ammo too! Hold the line. It was also growing dark and visibility grew very poor. About this time, Birney noticed his right flank was in the air. Kearny told Birney to hold his line and that he would take care of it. Kearny ended up wandering into the front of Thomas’ Confederate Brigade, and their volley killed him as he tried to escape. Thomas then launched a preemptive attack on the 21st Massachusetts. After some hand to hand fighting, both sides withdrew. Around 6:15, the brigades of Poe and Robinson (Kearny’s two other brigades) arrived on the field. Kearny had still not returned, and Birney must have known something was wrong. He ordered these two fresh brigades into the cornfield to relieve his own men. The fighting died out around 7 P.M. according to Welker.

After the fighting and maneuvering between A.P. Hill’s and Birney, the corn field was mostly trampled or shot down. Kearny’s two missing brigades under Poe and Robinson had finally come up. Birney had not seen Kearny for quite some time and assumed something bad had happened. He took control of the Division and moved Poe and Robinson forward to take the place of his brigade on the front line. Welker notes that even the skirmishers had trouble early that night keeping their sense of direction due to the blackness caused by nightfall and the storm. About an hour after the battle had ended, the storm cleared and the moon came out. Men could see the dead and wounded sprawled all over the field of battle. Men looked for their wounded friends, or tried to get something to eat. The Yankees had at least hardtack to munch on. The Confederates were forced to scrounge for food off of the blue-clad dead. Jackson had been stopped from reaching Jermantown, but his Corps had repelled all attacks thrown against it. Jackson knew that Pope had thousands of fresh men in the vicinity, and he strongly believed that Pope would renew the attacks in the morning. For this reason, Jackson left two brigades to picket his line from the battle, and pulled everyone back into a more consolidated position closer to the Little River Turnpike. Longstreet moved up and formed on Jackson’s right. The Confederate Army had been reunited. The men of the III Corps and IX Corps built huge fires to make the Confederates think they were staying, and then they retreated. The rest of the army had preceded them during the fighting. By 3 A.M., the field was left to the Rebels, along with the non-walking wounded and the dead.

Chapter Ten covers the aftermath of Stevens’s and Kearny’s deaths. Stevens’s body was recovered by his own men, while Kearny’s was lost to the Confederates. In both cases, however, these men were treated with the utmost respect. Both men had been reckless on many fields of battle, and it had caught up to them both within a few hundred yards and within a little over an hour of each other.

After holding out for as long as possible, Pope finally received a direct order to retreat at noon on September 2. Welker says that for the most part this was a needless order, but it did absolve Pope of some of the responsibility for the retreat. Incredibly (to me at least), Pope thought he might still be able to retain his command. Welker does credit Pope with a calm, orderly retreat after Chantilly. He says that the “qualities John Pope lacked in leading men on the battlefield were made up for in administrative acumen” during this march. Lee talked to Jackson and apparently agreed with him that Pope might attack on the 2nd because the ANV stayed in place into the morning of that day. By noon, after skirmishers had been sent out, it was known that the Yankees were in full retreat. For the first time in quite some time, the Confederates were given rations as well. This was the first day in a week these men had any chance to really rest. Lee began thinking about a plan he and Jackson had been discussing for weeks: an invasion of Maryland. Lee’s friend, speaking after the war, stated, “after Chantilly he found he could do nothing more against the Yankees, unless he attacked them in their fortifications around Washington, which he did not want to do. He therefore determined to cross the river into Maryland…” President Davis had agreed to an invasion as long as Richmond was safe from attack. Davis’s conditions were met and then some due to the disorganized condition of the Union Army. Lee still didn’t know where Pope (and the fresh units of the Army of the Potomac) was exactly located, so he sent “Jeb” Stuart’s Cavalry towards Washington, D.C. to find out. The Yankee retreat was marked by confusion: men took wrong roads, others waited in traffic jams, and many straggled. there was a running rear guard action between Stuart and two Union regiments, the 1st Minnesota and the 19th Massachusetts, plus Battery A of the 1st Rhode Island Light Artillery. Pope was still trying to figure out how to keep the Army, but it no longer mattered. Pope had been relieved of command on September 2 and McClellan was put in charge of the Union defenses around Washington. Whether he was ever named commander of the field force he led into Maryland a few days later is another question. McClellan rode out to meet his Army and met Pope as well. John Hatch, angry at Pope for having been sent to the infantry, loudly ordered three cheers for Little Mac. The army obliged and cheered him as he rode down the line of march. Jackson and his command left Ox Hill on September 3 bound for Maryland. That evening Lee’s Army stopped at Leesburg, Virginia, and they crossed the Potomac on September 4, 1862, headed for a showdown at Sharpsburg. Lee met little resistance at first as McClellan reorganized the Union Army, but the resistance stiffened greatly. Little Mac managed to get his men in fighting trim much faster than anyone expected. Pope’s Army of Virginia ceased to exist and a larger Army of the Potomac emerged. Welker notes that Chantilly was all but forgotten in between the two major battles at Second Manassas and Antietam. For the men who fought and lost friends there, though, they would never forget.

Each side believed they had won, but Welker calls this a “contest of perspectives.” The Confederates were the numerical victors. They had lost 83 killed, 418 wounded, and 15 missing for a total of 516. The Union, by comparison, lost 136 killed, 450 wounded, 69 missing for a total of 655. The southerners were even larger victors when looking at percentages lost. The Yankees lost 11.3% of those engaged, while the Confederates lost a much smaller 3.4%. But Welker points out those numerical comparisons are only useful if the forces roughly equal in size and composition, and this was definitely NOT the case at Ox Hill. Six thousand Union troops in 19 regiments faced fifteen thousand Confederates in 51 regiments. If you look at the tactical situation, it results in a stalemate. The Union commanders, Stevens and Kearny, achieved their (admittedly limited) goals by preventing Jackson from interrupting the northern retreat, though at the cost of both their lives. Jackson, taking the safe course by simply defending against a numerically inferior opponent, still managed to achieve this limited tactical goal. It strikes me as interesting that both sides operated under the assumption that the other would be attacking soon in great force. The strategic situation was clearly a victory by Pope. Lee’s stated goal was to interpose his Army between Pope and Washington, D.C., while Pope simply wanted to reach Washington safely. Interestingly, Welker puts forth the theory that maybe Lee WANTED to fail in this goal. Why? Welker believes he may have wanted to fail in order to set the stage for an invasion of Maryland, and by failing he set up the perfect opportunity to do this. Did Chantilly really matter in the overall view? Welker says it doesn’t appear to be the key battle many believed when it happened, because Washington wasn’t truly saved by the fight. He doesn’t believe Lee could have taken Washington. In fact, he says Lee never even intended to attack Washington’s fortifications directly. Kearny’s and Stevens’ deaths impacted the war more, according to the author. Both would have been Corps commanders had they lived, since both had subordinates assume that role not long after the battle of Antietam. At the end of the book, Welker gets into the slippery slope of ‘what-ifs’, saying Kearny would have prevented Lee from retreating unscathed at Gettysburg. You can’t look ahead in a vacuum like that though. If Kearny had been appointed commander, would there have even been a Battle of Gettysburg? And that doesn’t even take into account Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

I enjoyed David Welker’s narrative tremendously. The book, which I read for the second time before preparing this review, flows smoothly. If not for my need to take notes, I probably would have finished it in only two days or so. I found myself agreeing with one of Welker’s main conclusion when he states that Lee never intended to attack the Washington fortifications. Welker believes (as do I) that Lee’s main goal was to hurt Pope as badly as possible before he could get his Army behind those fortifications. Welker also theorizes that maybe Lee did not want Jackson’s flanking maneuver to succeed. He believes that Jackson’s failure to trap Pope set up conditions which made an invasion of Maryland possible. I don’t necessarily agree with this assertion, but it is an interesting possibility. The author was well suited (not to mention well located) to write the book. He lived in Centreville, Virginia, very near the battlefield. Prior to his research for the book, he had written several newspaper articles on the battle and the efforts (or lack thereof) to preserve the battlefield. All in all, Welker delivers a solid book with conclusions that made sense and were backed with a large number of sources and notes.

The notes run from pages 255-266, which is fine for a book of this size. The bibliography, running from pages 267-271, contains many varies sources, including the Official Records, unit histories, biographies of the principal leaders, personal reminiscences from men who were there. I noticed Welker relied on Sears, Hennessy, and Harsh, which IMHO is a good thing. I realize Sears has a massive anti-McClellan bias, but if you read him knowing this then it isn’t a problem. I’ve read Hennessy’s Campaign Study and Map Study of the Second Manassas, and I enjoyed it tremendously. I have yet to read Harsh, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about him. The index is located at the back of the book, as usual, from pages 273-279. I likewise was satisfied with the length of the index for a book of this size.

The Order of Battle runs from page 248 to page 254. It is a standard OOB, with Brigade commanders and up listed, with no regimental commanders or unit strengths. The maps were pretty solid, going down to the regimental level on the Union side. The maps do have some weak points. Namely, there are no topographical lines, the direction north is at an angle on the page, and the maps are not to scale (!). Eleven total maps give the reader both a good view of the campaign and a zoomed in level of detail for the tactical contest on September 2. Wargamers are probably not going to get a whole lot of information from this one. As stated earlier, there are no real regimental level strengths. Also, the maps only go down to brigade level on the Confederate side. I believe this is because the available records simply do not state the Confederate alignment for the most part with any kind of uniformity or accuracy. I make this assumption because all of the sources on Chantilly seem to organize their maps in the same way. A better place to go is the Battle of Chantilly web site at http://www.espd.com/oxhill/ (thanks to miniatures gamer Scott Mingus for pointing this out).

I consider this to be the best book on the Battle of Chantilly that is currently available. David Welker is a solid author who delivers a readable and interesting retelling of the events surrounding the Battle of Chantilly on September 1, 1862. The maps, while average in some respects, allow the reader to understand the narrative fully and complement the text. While written for the seasoned Civil War buff, I believe that the book could be read and appreciated by a relative newcomer. The early chapters do a good job of setting the stage for the main act at Chantilly. If you enjoy tactical studies of Civil War battles, whether the eastern theater in general or the Second Manassas Campaign in particular, you should read this book.

279 pp., 11 maps.

© Copyright Brett Schulte 2005. All rights reserved.

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