by Keith Poulter
Letters to the Editor
Al Nofi’s Knapsack
by Al Nofi
Al Nofi’s Knapsack is a regular column in North & South that features vignettes and other reminiscences of the late War Between the States. In this issue, the longest tidbit concern Confederate Brig. Gen. William N.R. Beall, who served as a supply agent who saw to the needs of Confederate POWs by selling cotton that was allowed through the lines by Union authorities. Other anecdotes include Robert E. Lee’s pet rattlesnake, General Winfield Scott’s residence in the hotel of a free Black man, James T. Wormley, John Pope’s invention of the button fly, and Johnny Shiloh, the “Drummer Boy of Chickamauga”.
Could The Confederacy Have Won The Civil War?
Discussion by William W. Freehling, Allen C. Guelzo, Bruce Levine, Richard M. McMurry, James M. McPherson, and Stephen W. Sears
This latest panel discussion by a group of well-known historians is in my humble opinion also the most interesting to date. All of these men agree that the Confederacy COULD have won, but more than one also states that the only way this would have happened would be for the Confederates to arm slaves and then grant them freedom based on military service, an impossibility given the Southern slave economy. Another common theme is that the only way the South could have won is if the North made mistakes orders of magnitude greater than the South. However, with Lincoln as President, most believed this to also be impossible. The hypothetical situation of swapping Lincoln and Davis is also discussed several times. The last main theme seems to focus on the South’s ability to woo the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. These border states contained a large amount of population and industry, and they would have added to the South’s situation while at the same time weakening the North. As Allen Guelzo points out, most of these men see the Confederacy’s failings as more political, while Sears and McPherson choose to focus more on military issues. Guelzo then goes on to agree with the latter two men. Bruce Levine believes in the military aspect as well, though he also mentions the Election of 1864 as a possible avenue of Confederate success. As always when arguing counterfactuals, discussions can get a little tricky. Richard McMurry points out that it is better to concentrate on what happened rather than what might have happened. McMurry continues to point to the lost battles in the West, battles where in many cases the Confederacy had the advantage of numbers and/or surprise, as a major reason for Confederate defeat. McPherson divides the historians into believers in “Contingency” (himself, Sears, and McMurry) versus believers in Inevitability (the others). He says that each of the three men believes the South had a shot at winning until a certain event happened (the fall of Atlanta, Glendale, and Snake Creek Gap, respectively). Sears believes that the South needed to win its independence on the battlefield, and that the only year this could have conceivably happened was 1862 (at Glendale and in Maryland, specifically). William Freehling believes that both the big things and the little things went against the Confederacy, especially with regards to the big things early in the war. He also agrees with McMurry that the Confederate losses in the west also played a large role in dooming the Confederacy. Allen Guelzo disputes to some extent his categorization as belonging to the camp of “Inevitability”. He believes that the South had some inherent advantages…which they then proceeded to throw away. Bruce Levine also disputes somewhat McPherson’s labeling of an “Inevitabilist”. He believes that some things require too much of a leap (the south’s arming of slaves early on), but that other situations were plausible (battlefield victories and/or British intervention). McMurry finishes off his thoughts by saying that the Confederacy could have won had its political leaders and generals made better decisions. McPherson concludes that Great Britain would have never intervened in the Civil War, that a Lincoln defeat in 1864 could have led to Confederate independence, and that Lincoln’s focus on armies rather than cities was the correct strategy. Lastly, Stephen Sears closes the discussion by focusing on Robert E. Lee. He concludes that Lee himself belonged to the “Contingency” camp, that battlefield victories alone would win independence for the Confederacy. I greatly enjoyed the discussion. It brought up some ideas that hadn’t occurred to me, and it was also interesting to watch the give and take on this counterfactual topic.
As Plain As A Deep Scar: The Disaster At Reams’ Station, August 25, 1864
by Allen C. Guelzo
As many of you who read this blog know, I’m an avid student of the Petersburg Campaign, so this article came as a pleasant surprise. August 25, 1864 was a dark day for Winfield Scott Hancock and his proud Union II Corps. They had been whittled down to a shadow of their former selves by late August 1864, having been involved front and center in the grueling meat grinder of the Overland Campaign. Even Hancock, still suffering from an old Gettysburg wound, was not the vibrant leader of earlier times. Like Romney in the last issue of Blue & Gray, Reams’ Station was a relatively unimportant place…until the armies gathered in Petersburg. It now was a spot on one of the supply lines for Lee’s army, and Grant was determined to make that supply line a lot more inconvenient than it currently was. Guelzo identifies a set of mistakes that led to the disaster, the first being Grant’s decision to select the used-up II Corps for the job. It had gone from almost 29,000 men on May 4, 1864, to a low of around 7,000 on June 30. Now, having been restocked with a decidedly less impressive set of men, conscripts and draftees, it was ordered out on its own to hold Reams’ Station. The second mistake, says Guelzo, was Hancock’s decision to leave his trains and most of his artillery at the Jerusalem Plank Road as some of his infantry and 16 guns pushed west to Globe Tavern and Warren’s Union V Corps. From Globe Tavern, the Yankees of the II Corps were sent south down the tracks of the Weldon Railroad, tearing up tracks as they went. After several days, the Union troops had reached Reams’ Station. miles’ Division of the II Corps was now dangerously exposed to a Southern response, and Confederate Major General Wade Hampton and his cavalry noticed this situation. Hampton skirmished with the cavalry screening II Corps on August 23, and by nightfall, he saw that the Union position at Reams’ Station was exposed and vulnerable. Miles’ Union division was positioned in a shallow fishhook that was both badly designed and constructed. It was already present in late August, having been created by Union cavalry on an earlier raid. Guelzo says that these entrenchments created a false sense of security for the Federals. Lee agreed with Hampton that an attempt should be made to bag the Union troops occupying Reams’ Station, and he sent A.P. Hill with two ad-hoc divisions of four brigades each under Cadmus Wilcox and Henry Heth to swing west of Globe Tavern and then attack Reams’ Station from the west. Hampton hadn’t seen Gibbon’s Division, still on the Jerusalem Plank Road, and Hill’s 8,000 men could have a tough time with two Union divisions rather than the one they thought they were facing. Hancock knew of Hill’s approach on August 24, but he did not call for reinforcements, and Guelzo calls this the first of many mysteries associated with the battle. On August 25, Hancock sent Gibbon’s newly arrived division a mile south on the Weldon Railroad to rip up more track. Guelzo believes that Hancock assumed no large force would attack him at Reams; Station. A cavalry attack to the south of Reams’ Station on the morning of the 25th was meant to distract the Union cavalry and allow Hill to get into position to attack. Hancock at first allowed Gibbon’s Division to get involved, but then he pulled everyone back to the Reams’ Station entrenchments, and Gibbon’s men extended the head of the fishhook eastward. The position now resembled a hairpin, with the bend to the west covering the station and the railroad. Around 12:30 on the afternoon of the 25th, Wilcox, taking over for an ailing A.P. Hill, launched the battle by attacking with the brigades of Anderson and Scales, but they were repulsed. Around 2 P.M., these two brigades combined with those of Lane and McGowan to launch a larger attack. The attack was again repulsed, and by now Hancock realized more than cavalry was in the woods to the west. He sent couriers to Meade to inform him of the situation, and later a telegraph line was hooked up as well. Hancock’s messages grew more and more pessimistic, and Meade had sent reinforcements east to Jerusalem Plank Road, where they would have to go south and then back west before reaching Hancock. They could have instead been sent directly south down the Weldon Railroad. As it stood, no reinforcements reached Hancock until after the battle. By this time, Heth had reached the field, and he took command from Wilcox and decided to launch one last major assault at 5 P.M. There were several gaps in the Union works, and Heth aimed for one in the northwest corner of the hairpin. This assault worked, as large portions of Miles’ Division melted away in the onslaught. Rugg’s Brigade of Gibbon’s Division, the general reserve, ran away rather than trying to close the gap. To make matters even worse, Rebel bullets were also hitting the backs of the men in Gibbon’s Division on the south side of the entrenchments. Hancock tried to rally his men, but the combination of the badly situated entrenchments and the presence of so many conscripts and other new men made the situation look hopeless. Guelzo says at this point that “there was still some chance of redeeming this debacle if something could be done to rally the II Corps.” The Confederates were disorganized by their attack, Union prisoners, and Union supplies. Miles encouraged an attack, but the Confederates had reinforcements, while Hancock did not. By 8 P.M., Hancock ordered a retreat. He retreated eastward and soon met Willcox’s IX Corps division marching belatedly to reinforce him. The Union II Corps had lost nine artillery pieces, 1,982 men missing, and overall casualties of 2,566. Guelzo points out that almost a third of the infantry had simply surrendered to the enemy, and of course scapegoats were need. Nelson Miles blamed Rugg’s brigade of Gibbon’s Division, but Guelzo points out the speciousness of that claim. Hancock himself blamed Gibbon, and Gibbon blamed the new recruits he had to deal with. He prevented three of his regiments who had lost their colors (the 8th New York HA, the 164th New York, and the the 36th Wisconsin) from obtaining new ones. Guelzo states that although the blame was focused on “draftees” and “Dutchmen”, for the most part these men fought as well as the veterans. He believes that the large number of prisoners resulted from several regiments being surrounded almost whole very quickly. Guelzo says the South gained very little from Reams’ Station, contrary to initial views. The loss of the Weldon Railroad to Reams’ Station far out shadowed the successful Confederate effort to drive the Union II Corps from that place. Also, the thought that Lincoln could no longer win reelection was shown to be false by later Union victories elsewhere. Guelzo concludes by saying that “the real loser at Reams’ Station was Winfield Scott Hancock, for it is on Hancock’s shoulders that most of the blame rests.” Guelzo believes Hancock remained at Reams’ Station for longer than was necessary or made sense, hoping to bring on a small fight that would bring he and his men more recognition. Instead, without most of his supplies and artillery, he faced Confederate infantry determined to bag his entire force from a faulty defensive position. Hancock resigned his command of the II Corps in November 1864, and Harry Heth believed that Hancock Reams’ Station was seared into Hancock’s heart as deeply as his physical Gettysburg wound. I greatly enjoyed this article. Dr. Guelzo gives sufficient background to understand the situation, and his narrative of the fight is easy to understand. The map of the area, as usual with North & South, is excellent. The article’s map should help when I read Bearss’ unpublished manuscript on the battle. I hope the author writes more articles on the Petersburg Campaign in future issues of N&S.
July 2-3, 1863: George Gordon Meade’s Battle Plans Re-Examined
by Robert Himmer
Himmer concludes his two-part look at Meade during the Battle of Gettysburg by discussing Meade’s intentions on the second and third days of the fight. Contrary to popular belief, the author believes that Meade was NOT dedicated to a defensive battle. Using the words of Meade and others, and also taking a look at the so-called “Paine map”, Himmer concludes that Meade wanted to attack Lee’s left on the morning of July 2, but that Slocum didn’t like the plan and interfered. Likewise, based on troop positions on the Paine map, he concludes that Meade wanted to initially assault the Confederate right on the afternoon of July 2, using the III Corps as the main thrust, to be supported by the II Corps and the VI Corps. Himmer believes that when Meade found out how tired the VI Corps was from its long march, he sent Sykes’ V Corps to the left instead in preparation for the attack. Lee, Himmer says, beat Meade to the punch on the south end of the battlefield. He finishes up by looking at the possibility of attacks on July 3 and later. The author says that although defensive posture served Meade well, he did not give up the hope of attacking Lee probably until the night of July 2. It would be interesting to hear what other people who have studied Gettysburg in depth have to say about the author’s contentions.
Do You Know?
Best Of… Downtown Gettysburg
by John S. Peterson
John S. Peterson discusses various walking tours in downtown Gettysburg, gives advice on the best places to eat, recommends various used booksellers, and even talks about the night life in town.
Supporting The Troops: The Bond Between Civilians and Soldiers in the Civil War
by Steven E. Woodworth
Author and fellow blogger Steven E. Woodworth discusses the strong bond between soldiers at the front and the civilians they left behind. Among the topics covered, we have flag presentations to both companies and regiments, care packages and letters sent to the front, and celebrations when the soldiers returned home after the war and literally for the rest of their lives.
“The Worst Sight I Ever Saw”: The 154th New York Infantry At the Battle of Peachtree Creek
by Mark H. Dunkelman
The 154th New York was raised in Cattaraugus and Chautauqua Counties in the summer of 1862. By July of 1864, well into the Atlanta Campaign, the 154th had been involved in no less than eleven fights, and their manpower had been severely drained. They carried around 100 men on their rolls at the Battle of Peachtree Creek. Members of Patrick Henry Jones’ Second Brigade, Geary’s Second “White Star” Division, Hooker’s XX Corps, Thomas’ Army of the Cumberland, the 154th New York was front and center on the day of the battle, July 20, 1864. The 33rd New Jersey of Jones’ Brigade had been sent out in front of the division to dig a position for artillery. Geary’s Division proper was somewhat isolated. Alpheus Williams’ First Division was behind and to the right of Geary, while Ward’s Third Division was separated from Geary’s left by Early’s Creek. The Confederate attack hit the 33rd New Jersey suddenly and most of Jones’ Brigade was forced northward to some breastworks they dug earlier. The left of Geary’s Division, Candy’s Brigade, managed to hold for the most part. The Confederates then repeatedly assaulted the new Union position with no success. Dunkelman mentioned that despite the heavy fighting, the 154th was lucky in this fight. Several members of the regiment said much the same thing in letters and diaries. The regiment suffered only seven casualties in total, perhaps a make-up situation from Fate for their earlier heavy losses.
Civil War Round Tables
A Philosopher’s Defense of the Confederacy
by Charles Priestley
Charles Priestley here offers us a look at the thoughts of one British supporter of the Confederacy, Jermyn Cowell, to his friend Henry Sidgwick, who favored the Union, in the form of a September 1863 letter. Both men were interested in philosophy and the betterment of mankind. In his letter, Cowell proposes to look at the issue using three documents (the Constitution of the United States, its interpretation by the Supreme Court, and the Constitutions of each State). He argues two questions separately, saying they should not be mixed as the Federal Government had done. The first question was “Is it lawful? Is it moral? for the Federal Government to make War on a State which secedes?” Cowell argues that it most assuredly is not, and says that each State was a Sovereign rather than a Subject State, and had the right to govern itself as it saw fit. He also mentions the talks of secession from northeastern States earlier in the 19th Century, and even mentions that Lincoln said it was lawful for his State of Illinois to secede any time it wished. The second question is “Is it Moral to Make War on a People because it will not abolish slavery?” Cowell admits that this is a complicated and difficult question, but he still sides with the Confederacy. I admit to being very surprised by this attitude. Specifically, Cowell says that the horror and destructions visited upon the White population of the South would cause far more human suffering than if slaves had been left in bondage. His proposed solution was gradual emancipation over the course of fifty or so years. This really wasn’t a very convincing argument from my standpoint. What happens if that country suddenly reverses itself fifty years down the road? Do you make war on that country then, or do you institute another “fifty year plan”? Also, as a supposed hater of human suffering, Cowell shows little to no regard for the slaves then toiling in bondage in America. Priestley concludes the article by mentioning that these two men never did agree on which side to support during the Civil War, but that they didn’t let it get in the way of their friendship. Although Sidgwick lived into the next century, Jermyn Cowell died at the very young age of 29 from “heart disease and congestion of the lungs.” To his dying day, he believed the Confederacy had been the morally superior side in the struggle.
Books reviewed in this issue:
1. Plain Folk’s Fight: The Civil War & Reconstruction in Piney Woods Georgia by Mark V. Wetherington
2. The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography by Bob Zeller
3. Confederate Naval Forces On Western Waters: The Defense of the Mississippi River and Its Tributaries by R. Thomas Campbell
4. Sons Of Privilege: The Charleston Light Dragoons in the Civil War by W. Eric Emerson
5. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant Vol. 27 (January 1-October 31, 1876) edited by John Y. Simon, et al
6. Planters’ Progress: Modernizing Confederate Georgia by Chad Morgan
7. William Babcock Hazen: The Best Hated Man by Edward S. Cooper
8. Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson
9. “10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America: Antietam” a film by Michael Epstein