Review: Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh

by Fred Ray on January 24, 2016 · 6 comments

Lost Dispatch

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
By Phillip Leigh
Illustrated, photos, maps, notes, bibliography, index, 224 pp. softcover $18.95
Westholme Publishing 2015
www.westholmepublishing.com

Phillip Leigh, whose last book, Trading With the Enemy, I reviewed a while back, has produced another volume for the Civil War reader. This one is a series of essays on various controversies, mysteries, and other aspects of the war. Briefly, they are:

The Biggest Confederate Error. Leigh sees this as Jefferson Davis’ decision to hold Southern cotton off the market to put pressure on England and France to intervene. In retrospect, however, Davis missed a golden opportunity to supplement his meagre war chest while he still could. Had the cotton been sold and the money put into European banks, the Confederacy would have had more money than the United States to buy badly needed war materiel. Once the blockade became effective, it was too late.

The Biggest Union Error. Should the Union have instituted a “Manhattan Project” to arm its armies with repeaters? Leigh argues that this would have been a war winner and would have shortened the war by at least a year. Instead, it was unconscionably delayed by a combination of military conservatism, civilian politics, and bureaucratic bungling. My reaction is “maybe” and think this the least convincing of his essays. The industrial revolution was just getting started and still in the process of making the transition from craft production to mass production. It was not what it was 50 years later during WWI, nor was the idea of state supervision of industry during wartime yet in force (although the North was still capable of some astounding feats of industrial production, as evidenced by the swift completion of the ironclad Monitor).

The Union did in fact recognize the need for a breech loader as early as 1863, but due to bureaucratic inertia the trials, which resulted in the Trapdoor breech-loading conversion for the Springfield rifle, were not finalized until near the end of the war. Still, as Joseph Bilby has documented, the Federals greatly increased the numbers of both repeaters and breech loaders as the war progressed. A large proportion of their cavalry were armed with them. In mid-1864 each infantry corps in Virginia was given enough Spencers to arm one regiment, as well as the sharpshooter companies of each division. Many of the line regiments had substantial numbers of Sharps breech loaders, which were usually given to the flank companies.

One must also consider the increased logistical burden that breech loaders and especially repeaters imposed. In an age when most ammunition had to be hauled around the battlefield in wagons or on muleback, this was a serious consideration. Military leaders also feared, not without reason, that soldiers given these weapons, especially green ones, would quickly fire off their ammunition.

Preempting the Civil War. There were of course many opportunities in retrospect, but Leigh argues that if Lincoln had sent in a heavily-armed warship instead of the Star of the West to Charleston, South Carolina might have backed down, as they had for Andrew Jackson. If threats failed, the warship could simply have outgunned the insurgents and ended the rebellion then and there.

Treasury Innovations and Mischiefs. As he showed in his last book, Leigh is especially strong when dealing with financial matters. In this essay he discusses Union financing of the war, and how it was necessary to radically expand credit and the money supply, and to adopt deficit financing. All in all a very thorough look at the problem and the rise of the greenback. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase was the author of most of these creative innovations, although he, like many others, was not above benefiting from it personally.

The Camelot Couple concerns the marriage of Chase’s daughter Kate and William Sprague, a wealthy lawyer and politician with high ambitions. While it’s not exactly a controversy, it is an interesting story full of political double dealing, infidelity, and much more. As Leigh details, both the marriage and their political ambitions ultimately came to nothing.

The Burning of Atlanta. Here Leigh wades into a topic that has gotten more attention lately – the Union “harsh war” policy and the treatment of Southern civilians and their property. He convincingly argues that at best Sherman turned a blind eye to the depredations of his men, and at worst encouraged it as a way to bring the Confederacy to its knees. Although some others have argued that Atlanta was not really burned, he shows just how extensive the damage really was, and how it fit into a larger pattern of deliberate destruction by Sherman’s armies.

Choosing Sherman or Thomas. The argument about whether William T. Sherman or George Thomas was the better general has been going on for some time, and Leigh comes down firmly on the side of Thomas. He goes even further in arguing that Thomas would have done a better job than Sherman as Union commander in the 1864 Atlanta campaign, and that Grant erred in selecting him.

The Spring Hill Spies looks at the near-miraculous escape of a Union force under General John Schofield at Spring Hill, Tenn., which marched to safety literally within sight of Hood’s Army of Tennessee without a shot being fired on the night of November 28, 1864. Had Hood caught Schofield, the battle of Franklin, fought the next day, might have turned out very differently. Leigh considers several explanations, including the intriguing postwar account of one J. D. Remington, who claimed to have been a Union spy who planted false information about what was transpiring at Confederate headquarters.

Ghosts of the Lost Dispatch. The loss of Lee’s Special Order 191during the Maryland campaign gives the book its title and gets a detailed look. Leigh, like most historians, concludes the order came from D. H. Hill’s headquarters and considers possible scenarios, but the possibilities remain many.

Florida after Vicksburg. Florida had the smallest population of any of the Southern states yet was vitally important as “the storehouse of the Confederacy.” Its importance increased exponentially after the fall of Vickburg, when it became the Confederacy’s main source of beef and one of its main sources of salt. Leigh considers the economic and strategic value of Florida, as well as Lincoln’s attempt, dashed at Olustee, to set up a puppet pro-Union government for the purpose of having Florida secede back to the Union. He also looks at one of the war’s most colorful units, the “Cow Cavalry” – Florida cowmen (there were no cowboys in Florida) who guarded and drove the herds to railheads in Georgia and the Carolinas. This is one of my interests also and I found it very informative, although it too can’t really be called a controversy.

Lincoln and McClellan. The relationship between the President and his General-in-Chief is well-trodden territory, but Leigh adds some fresh light on Little Mac’s accomplishments and failures, concentrating on the larger strategic picture.

Overall well written and argued, and though you may not agree with all his conclusions, it is well worth reading. The books itself is well edited and layed out, and there are a number of maps to supplement the text. At only $18.95, it has the additional virtue of being very reasonably priced in this day of expensive books. Recommended.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil Leigh January 25, 2016 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for the review, Fred. I’ll share a couple of thoughts.

First, the “Star of the West” was dispatched during the Buchanan administration, not Lincoln’s.

Buchanan preferred to send the “USS Brooklyn,” which was a powerful warship, instead of the “Star of the West,” which was a commercial steamer. Moreover, the “Brooklyn” should have been able to depart Hampton Roads on January 2, 1861 and reach Charleston several days before Mississippi became the second state to secede on January 9th. Charleston alone had nothing to match the combined firepower of “Brooklyn” and Sumter.

Although “Brooklyn” had been held ready for sail for at least two weeks, on January 2nd General Winfield Scott urged a change to the “Star-of-the-West.” Being in New York, the “Star” was also more distant from Charleston. According to Buchanan he “yielded to the change with great reluctance, and solely in deference to…[General Scott.]”

Although “Brooklyn” was powerful enough to command Charleston harbor her sixteen-foot draft would have limited her maneuverability. However, she might have been replaced by the “USS Pawnee,” which drew only ten feet. Although “Pawnee” had only ten guns compared to “Brooklyn’s” twenty-nine, she was only a year old and had returned to Philadelphia on December 12, 1860 from a Mexican cruise.

*James Buchanan “Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion” (New York: D. Appleton, 1866), 189-90

Second, the “Biggest Federal Error” essay is critical of the slow adoption rate for repeaters *and* single-shot breechloaders, not just repeaters. While the Henry and Spencer repeaters were only patented the year before the war started, single shot breechloaders had been around for years. The Sharps, which was the most popular, was invented thirteen years before the war started. Although single-shot breechloaders could not fire as quickly as repeaters, their firing rate was far superior to Springfield and Enfield muzzleloaders.

While state-supported assistance on the scale of World War II’s Manhattan Project was unrealistic, the federal government could have provided at least a modicum of aid. After all, Republicans were strong proponents of federal spending on public works to aid commerce and industry. The times cried out for addtional innovations and state-supported assistance for clearly superior weapons technology should not have been much of a stretch. Arms expert Alexander Dyer gave a thumbs-up to repeaters during the first year of the war but was not made Ordnance Chief until seven months before Lee surrendered.

Arguments that repeaters and breechloaders might encourage soldiers to waste ammunition are dubious. Buford’s men managed to do okay at Gettysburg. Interestingly, the first federal infantry engaged at the battle of Olustee was a regiment armed with Spencer repeaters. Although, they *did* temporarily exhaust their ammunition, it was not before they had devastated an opposing Georgia regiment and killed all of the enemy’s officers. Given such results it is better to improve logistics than to restrict deployment of superior weapons.

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Stefan Jovanovich February 19, 2016 at 4:17 pm

Mr. Leigh: Don’t you think that the South’s real blunder was not so much the embargo but the deliberate destruction of its own stockpiles that went with it? As your wonderful book Trading with the Enemy demonstrates, the Confederacy was able to sell its cotton for supplies here in the United States, even after the Union Armies had moved South. If the South had kept the 1861 crop, they could have sold it North, as they did the later years’ production. Given the experience Davis and Benjamin had as financial speculators, could it be that the real blunder was their presumption that they had to double down on the embargo threat by destroying their actual inventories?

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Phil Leigh December 11, 2017 at 1:16 pm

Sorry that I missed your two year old comment.

Destroying cotton that kept it from being an asset to the Confederacy or Southern civilians could be regarded as a blunder. But keeping the cotton out of the hands of Yankees who did not need to otherwise pay for it (meaning the advancing Union armies) did not hurt the South.

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Fred Ray January 25, 2016 at 9:57 pm

Thanks for the clarification and correction on the Star of the West and the Brooklyn.

However, on the subject of rifles I remain unconvinced, at least for repeaters, and will try to address this at more length in a later post.

The Union was uparming with breech loaders and repeaters by mid-1864 — more so than has generally been appreciated, but I remain skeptical that production could have been scaled up that rapidly. Only by mid-1863 had production of the Springfield rifle-musket attained a level that could supply the Federal forces, and switching to a new rifle would have been fraught with difficulties.

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Joseph A. Rose January 28, 2016 at 12:13 pm

Great review of a great book, so congrats to both author and reviewer.

As to “The Biggest Confederate Error,” there were so many egregious blunders by both sides that it seems awfully difficult to identify the biggest one for either, but withholding cotton is a good choice for the Confederacy’s worst decision. Jefferson Davis should have been smart enough to realize that the Union’s naval power was going to forcibly “withhold” much of his cotton in the near future, in any event. Has anyone looked into the possibility that Davis’ deliberately withholding cotton hurt the Confederacy’s standing with the European powers? If their economies were being damaged by Davis’ deliberate decision, it would seem a logical response.

On the subject of breech-loading and repeating small arms, the federal government could have used a carrot approach (as opposed to a governmental mandate of some sort) to promote their early adoption and use. Assuming patent issues could be resolved, the government could have offered the specifications (or even the tools and dies) to manufacturers and contracted to buy the factories’ output (assuming that the weapons were within given tolerances, etc.). Even ignoring the newer technology of repeaters, the breech-loaders’ faster rates of fire and the ability to reload while on a horse or prone, while skirmishing, was a tremendous advantage (and their production was certainly upscaled).

Lastly, the choice between Sherman and Thomas was so obvious, that only someone who made the decision based on other issues could have chosen the former. Thomas’ army (including Hooker’s contingent) had just won the battles of Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, while Sherman failed badly in his part of the engagement. And Sherman had no achievement that even came close to Thomas’ at Chickamauga. Thomas had even been considered for command of the Army of the Potomac. The muffing of the initial operations of the Atlanta campaign at Snake Creek Gap and Resaca by Sherman easily confirmed that he was the wrong choice. The Army of Tennessee could have been shattered then and there.

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Phil Leigh February 2, 2016 at 11:52 am

Thanks for the thought-provoking comments, Joe.

First, the Southern cotton embargo was not official for the reason you cite. Europeans *were* annoyed with the South for cutting off feedstock to their textile mills. The embargo was voluntary, although there is little doubt that Davis encouraged it unofficially. At one point a Rebel emissary complained to Napoleon III that the French should condemn the Federal blockade as illegal, because it was a paper blockade. Napoleon essentially replied, “If blockade is not effective, why are we not getting any cotton?” He was indirectly condemning the embargo.

Second, your comments on breech-loaders are on target. There’s no doubt of their superior firing rate and combined advantages of reducing a soldier’s target profile while loading and the easier loading for mounted troops. The federal government should have quickly arbitrated patent disputes, which particularly affected the Henry. During World War I (fifty years later) all aviation and radio patents were quickly put into a pool available to all manufacturers.

Even though state-supported industry was uncommon during the CW era, it was not altogether absent. As noted, Republicans were major supporters of public works spending to aid commerce and industry. The 1862 Pacific Railroad Act elevated the concept to a new level. The applicable railroads were given generous federal assistance in the form of land grants (which could be sold for cash) and direct government loans for each mile of track laid.

Third, ditto your opinion on Sherman and Thomas. Grant, made the choice, right? Anything to add?

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