Eastern Tennessee: The Dandridge Engagement

January 17, 1864 – Federals and Confederates moved toward Dandridge to gather much-needed foodstuffs for the hungry troops in the bitter eastern Tennessee winter.

The Federal Army of the Ohio, stationed at Strawberry Plains, had stripped the surrounding countryside of forage. The troops therefore began moving toward Dandridge, an important crossroads town near the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, that promised more provisions. They were led by Major General Philip Sheridan.

Gen S.D. Sturgis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Federal cavalry under Brigadier General Samuel D. Sturgis drove off Confederate horsemen probing near the town, unaware that Lieutenant General James Longstreet had mobilized his infantry to seize Dandridge as well. Most of Sturgis’s men took the Morristown Road to Kimbrough’s Crossroads, while a detachment met enemy cavalry southeast of Dandridge, at the bend of Chunky Road. When these Federals could not drive the Confederates off, they fell back to Dandridge.

Sturgis received word on the 17th that the Confederates were preparing to attack, and he invited Sheridan to come watch him “whip the enemy’s cavalry.” Sheridan declined, as he was still leading his infantry toward Dandridge. Sturgis readied for the enemy horsemen, but he was surprised to see that they were backed by Longstreet’s infantry. Sturgis fell back to join the main Federal force.

Sheridan set up defenses outside Dandridge and called on the remaining troops under Major Generals Gordon Granger and John G. Parke for support. As the Federals probed the Confederate lines about four miles from town, Longstreet’s troops moved around the Federals’ flank and nearly into their rear. Longstreet did not send his heavy guns with them because “the ringing of the iron axles of the guns might give notice to our purpose.”

Granger arrived to take command, and Sheridan’s division began building a bridge below Dandridge that would allow the Federals to forage in the region and return to their camps at Strawberry Plains and Knoxville. Sheridan’s bridge was seemingly completed, “but to his mortification, he found at dark that he was on an island, and that it would require four more hours to complete this bridge.”

Longstreet arranged his men in attack positions around 4 p.m. Parke, who had arrived on the scene with Granger and Sheridan, reported to Major General John G. Foster, commanding the Army of the Ohio from Knoxville, at 6:30 p.m.:

“There is no doubt that Longstreet’s whole force is immediately in our front on the Bull’s Gap and the Bend of Chunky Roads. They advanced on us this evening. We have no means of crossing the river. I shall fall back on Strawberry Plains.”

According to Longstreet, “As the infantry had had a good long march before reaching the ground, we only had time to get our position a little after dark. During the night the enemy retired to New Market and to Strawberry Plains, leaving his dead upon the ground.” Granger issued the orders to withdraw at 9 p.m. The Federals left their partially completed bridge behind.

As the Confederates camped for the night, Foster feared they may have been reinforced by General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. However, General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck informed him that according to the latest intelligence, “Longstreet has had no re-enforcements from Lee of late.”

Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

The Confederates entered Dandridge on the morning of the 18th. In his memoirs, Longstreet wrote:

“When I rode into Dandridge in the gray of the morning the ground was thawing and hardly firm enough to bear the weight of a horse. When the cavalry came at sunrise the last crust of ice had melted, letting the animals down to their fetlocks in heavy limestone soil. The mud and want of a bridge to cross the Holston made pursuit by our heavy columns useless.”

Longstreet noted that the Federal retreat seemed “to have been made somewhat hastily and not in very good order.” He began a half-hearted pursuit, and “the men without shoes were ordered to remain as camp guards, but many preferred to march with their comrades.” The Confederates could not make much progress because “the bitter freeze of two weeks had made the rough angles of mud as firm and sharp as so many freshly-quarried rocks, and the partially protected feet of our soldiers sometimes left bloody marks along the roads.”

The Federals continued falling back, as Foster directed them to keep retreating all the way to Knoxville. Major General Jacob D. Cox, commanding XXIII Corps, stated that “in the afternoon, the rain changed to moist driving snow. The sleepy, weary troops toiled doggedly on; the wagons and cannon were helped over the bad places in the way, for we were determined not to abandon any, and the enemy was not hurrying us.”

Stopping short of Strawberry Plains that night, Cox recalled, “We halted the men here and went into bivouac for the night… sheltered from the storm and where the evergreen boughs were speedily converted into tents of a sort, as well as soft and fragrant beds.” Cox wrote that “it had been a wretchedly cheerless and uncomfortable march, but the increasing cold and flying snow made the camp scarcely less inclement.”

This small engagement at Dandridge caused an uproar in Washington, as officials believed that the Federals might abandon eastern Tennessee altogether. Halleck reminded Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Western Theater, that President Abraham Lincoln considered holding the region “the very greatest importance, both in a political and military point of view, and no effort must be spared to accomplish that object.”

Halleck then asked Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, to “please give particular attention to the situation of General Foster’s army in East Tennessee, and give him all the aid which he may require and you may be able to render.” Thomas could do nothing except ship more supplies to Foster’s army. The Federal high command would eventually realize that the engagement did not portend the disaster that they feared.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 390

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Suffering in Eastern Tennessee

January 15, 1864 – Lieutenant General James Longstreet mobilized his Confederate forces as both his men and the Federal troops languished in the harsh winter of mountainous eastern Tennessee.

Gen J.G. Foster | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Major General Ulysses S. Grant, the Federal commander in the Western Theater, traveled to Knoxville to personally inspect Major General John G. Foster’s Army of the Ohio. Grant had urged Foster to drive Longstreet out of eastern Tennessee, but Foster argued that the men were in no condition to conduct such an operation in the bitter cold and forbidding terrain.

Foster’s army was stationed on Strawberry Plains, north of Knoxville and about 30 miles from Longstreet’s Confederates at Russellville. Grant visited the army on the 2nd and saw that the men suffered from a severe lack of winter clothing and footwear. They also had very little food left, having stripped the surrounding countryside of forage. Foster was right: the Federals could not be expected to confront Longstreet. Grant contacted Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga:

“Send forward clothing for this command as fast as it arrives at Chattanooga. If you have clothing on hand that can possibly be spared, send it forward and deduct the same amount from that coming forward for Foster. Troops here are in bad condition for clothing, and before making much advance must be supplied.”

In a controversial move, Grant authorized Foster to organize local blacks into what became the 1st U.S. Colored Heavy Artillery. Tennessee was a slave state exempted from the Emancipation Proclamation, so Foster had to get permission from the slaves’ masters before inducting them into the military, and then compensate the masters for their loss of labor.

After Grant left, Foster reported to him, “The cold weather and high rivers have made things worse, (and) many animals are dying daily.” The Holston River was flooding with water and ice, and he had to build a bridge to send men to Dandridge “to obtain forage and corn and wheat. Everything is eaten out north of Holston River, also nearly everything is eaten up at Mossy Creek.”

Foster noted that since Grant had called on Federals at both Chattanooga and Nashville to send supplies, “Some quartermaster stores have arrived, but not in sufficient quantity. No rations by last boats. Am entirely destitute of bread, coffee, and sugar.”

According to Confederate deserters, Longstreet’s main force was between Morristown and Russellville, and his cavalry was at Kimbrough’s Crossroads. Foster added that the Confederates were suffering just as much as his men: “They lack clothing, especially shoes, rations and forage. The condition is every way bad.”

The deserters dispelled rumors that Longstreet had been reinforced. They also told the Federals that their comrades had stripped the countryside of foodstuffs for 20 miles around. Foster explained, “They have now to cross to the south side of the French Broad for forage. The talk among the officers and men is that they will soon have to retreat to Bristol.” For now, the armies would battle the weather and starvation instead of each other.

Foster then wrote Thomas, explaining the “rapid destruction of our teams by death of animals from starvation.” Thomas immediately answered that “stores will be forwarded you as fast as possible, but unless great care is exercised both armies will be suffering.” In a second message, Thomas wrote, “Two of our largest steamers are up the river, with all the subsistence stores we can spare from here until they are returned.”

Grant reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that no offensive would be undertaken any time soon in eastern Tennessee, as the men were “suffering for want of clothing, especially shoes.” Grant reconnoitered the road leading through Cumberland Gap as a possible supply line, but he saw that “no portion of our supplies can be hauled by teams” along that route. Foster would have to rely on supplies being shipped up the winding Tennessee River.

Meanwhile, Federal cavalry probed the area around Longstreet’s camps, trying to gather intelligence. As the Federals inched closer, Longstreet decided that the only way to survive was to destroy the Federals and take back Knoxville. He mobilized his infantry on the 15th and put them on the march to Dandridge. This, Longstreet hoped, would secure an important point on the East Tennessee & Virginia Railroad, flank the Federals, and push them back into Knoxville, where Longstreet could renew his siege and this time starve them into submission.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Hess, Earl J., The Knoxville Campaign: Burnside and Longstreet in East Tennessee (University of Tennessee Press, 2013); Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 1), p. 44; OR (Series 1, Volume 2), p. 219; OR (Series 1, Volume 32, Part 2), p. 71-73

Federals Continue Pressuring Charleston

January 13, 1864 – Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, recommended that Federal forces use torpedo boats, like the Confederacy’s David, to attack enemy ships and defenses in Charleston Harbor.

Rear Adm J.A.B. Dahlgren – Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

By this month, the Federal blockade of Charleston Harbor was choking the city into submission. Federal troops occupied Morris and Folly islands southeast of Charleston, but Confederates still held Fort Sumter in the harbor. Dahlgren reported to President Abraham Lincoln:

“The city of Charleston is converted into a camp, and 20,000 or 25,000 of their best troops are kept in abeyance in the vicinity, to guard against all possible contingencies, so that 2,000 of our men in the fortifications of Morris and Folly Islands, assisted by a few ironclads, are tendering invaluable service… No man in the country will be more happy than myself to plant the flag of the Union where you most desire to see it.”

With Federal blockading vessels under constant threat from torpedoes and other obstructions, Dahlgren warned his commanders about a type of boat–

“… of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there to operate… It is also advisable not to anchor in the deepest part of the channel, for by not leaving much space between the bottom of the vessel and the bottom of the channel it will be impossible for the diving torpedo to operate except on the sides, and there will be less difficulty in raising a vessel if sunk.”

In recommending the Federal use of David-type torpedo boats, Dahlgren wrote:

“Nothing better could be devised for the security of our own vessels or for the examination of the enemy’s position… The length of these torpedo boats might be about 40 feet, and 5 to 6 feet in diameter, with a high-pressure engine that will drive them 5 knots. It is not necessary to expend much finish on them.”

In late January, the Federals batteries on Morris Island resumed their sporadic bombardment of Fort Sumter. The Charleston Courier reported, “The whizzing of shells overhead has become a matter of so little interest as to excite scarcely any attention from passers-by.” The barrage increased on the 29th, and over the next two days, 583 rounds were fired into the fort.

The Confederate defenders still refused to surrender. And despite the blockade’s effectiveness, blockade-runners still escaped into the open seas occasionally. Lieutenant Commander James C. Chaplin wrote to Dahlgren offering reasons why blockade running was so appealing:

“… They are provided with the best of instruments and charts, and, if the master is ignorant of the channel and inlets of our coast, a good pilot. They are also in possession of the necessary funds (in specie) to bribe, if possible, captors for their release. Such an offer was made to myself… of some 800 pounds sterling. The master of a sailing vessel, before leaving port, receives $1,000 (in coin), and if successful, $5,000 on leaving and $15,000 in a successful return to the same port.”

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 358-59, 362, 364; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388, 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 457-58

Banks Initiates Reconstruction in Louisiana

January 11, 1864 – Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, commanding the Federal Department of the Gulf from New Orleans, issued orders calling for the election of Louisiana state officials and delegates to a convention that would rewrite the Louisiana constitution.

Major General Nathaniel P. Banks | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The state officials were to comprise “the civil government of the State under the Constitution and laws of Louisiana, except so much of the said Constitution and laws as recognize, regulate, or relate to slavery, which, being inconsistent with the present condition of public affairs, and plainly inapplicable to any class of persons now existing within its limits, must be suspended.”

Banks had been prodded by President Abraham Lincoln to implement his “Ten Percent Plan” in Louisiana. Banks resolved that “the only speedy and certain method” to do this was to hold a special election for state officials under the current Louisiana constitution while declaring that the provisions in that document regarding slavery were “inoperative and void.”

Most Unionists opposed Banks’s plan because they wanted to amend the constitution to not only abolish slavery but to abolish other alleged injustices that favored planters over the masses. Banks responded by also calling for the election of delegates that would revise or replace the Louisiana constitution at a later date.

Those eligible to vote in the elections for state officials and delegates were white men who swore allegiance to the Union and adhered to the Emancipation Proclamation. However, the proclamation exempted many areas of Louisiana from abolishing slavery. Also, the election would be held when Federal occupation forces controlled only 17 of the state’s 48 parishes. Regardless, Banks had the 10 percent of 1860 voters he needed to call for the election, and it was set for February 22.

Some objected to the notion that only white men would be voting to revise Louisiana’s constitution. A petition was sent to Washington, signed by over 1,000 men, calling on the Federal government to grant the “free people of color” in New Orleans the right to vote. The signees included 27 veterans of the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 and the relatives of many men currently serving in the military. Radical Republicans in Congress applauded the delegates who delivered the petition, and Lincoln invited them to the White House.

But while the Radicals favored granting black men the right to vote, many opposed Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan.” Congressman Henry W. Davis of Maryland introduced a resolution stating, “There is no legal authority to hold any election in the State of Louisiana; … (and) any attempt to hold an election… is a usurpation of sovereign authority against the authority of the United States.” Politics played a part in Davis’s opposition, as Lincoln had not supported Davis’s bitter struggle against the Blairs’ political machine in Maryland.

Despite the opposition, Lincoln directed Banks to “proceed with all possible despatch” to install a Unionist state government in Louisiana. He reminded Banks that, as department commander, he was “at liberty to adopt any rule which shall admit to vote any unquestionably loyal free state men and none others. And yet I do wish they would all take the oath.”

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References

Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 16850; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 359; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10346-58, 10391; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 388-89, 393; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 454, 459; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 707; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Sherman Targets Meridian

January 10, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman, the new commander of the Federal Army of the Tennessee, arrived at Memphis to discuss his upcoming campaign against Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk’s Confederate Army of Mississippi.

Federal Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: collaborationnation.wikispaces.com

In December, Sherman had proposed clearing Confederate guerrillas from the Yazoo and Red rivers in Mississippi and Louisiana. But as the new year began, that plan changed. At Memphis, Sherman shared his new plan with Major General Stephen A. Hurlbut, commanding XVI Corps. Sherman’s army, consisting of two corps (Hurlbut’s and Major General James B. McPherson’s XVII) garrisoned throughout the region, would move across central Mississippi from the Mississippi River to confront Polk, whose 10,000-man army was stationed near Meridian.

Sherman next wrote McPherson, “Now is the time to strike inland at Meridian and Selma. I think Vicksburg is the point of departure from the (Mississippi) river.” Sherman would pull 20,000 white troops from the garrisons at Fort Pillow, Memphis, Corinth, and other posts, and replace them with black troops. Sherman wrote, “Keep this to yourself, and make preparations.” Sherman demanded strict secrecy or else the Confederates might hurry reinforcements to Polk. This included severely restricting the number of newspaper correspondents in his military department.

Sherman then met with Brigadier General William Sooy Smith, who commanded 2,500 Federal cavalry troopers clearing “the country of the bands of guerrillas that infested” Middle Tennessee. Smith’s force would be expanded and assigned to confront Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 3,500 Confederate horsemen, which were currently heading into Mississippi to gather new recruits and join Polk.

Within two weeks, Smith’s force had been bolstered to 7,000 troopers in two divisions. They would advance southeast from Memphis, plundering along the Mobile & Ohio Railroad line from Okolona to Meridian while looking to confront Forrest.

Sherman arrived at Vicksburg aboard the gunboat Juliet on the 29th. He wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck explaining his plan to launch Smith against Forrest and the railroad while the main force moved east from Vicksburg to Meridian. A third force would move up the Yazoo River and threaten Grenada as a diversion.

Sherman wrote Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, “All things favorable thus far for movement on Meridian.” The official Federal mission was to inflict so much destruction on the railroads in Mississippi “that the enemy will not attempt to rebuild them during the rebellion.”

To McPherson, Sherman made it clear that he intended to wage war on civilians: “Let the commanding officer impress on the people that we shall periodically visit that country and destroy property or take it, as long as parties of Confederate troops or guerrillas infest the river banks.” Sherman directed his men to seize farmers’ cotton and give it to Federal ships that had been fired upon by Confederate partisans.

Sherman stated that civilians along the Yazoo must know “that we intend to hold them responsible for all acts of hostility to the river commerce,” because they now must–

“… feel that war may reach their doors. If the enemy burns cotton we don’t care. It is their property and not ours, but so long as they have cotton, corn, horses, or anything, we will appropriate it or destroy it so long as the confederates in war act in violence to us and our lawful commerce. They must be active friends or enemies. They cannot be silent or neutral.”

The Federals were not to bring any provisions with them on the march, “for the enemy must not only pay for damages inflicted on our commerce but for the expenses incurred in the suppression.”

To divert attention from Sherman’s expedition, Grant directed Major General George H. Thomas, commanding the Federal Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga, to advance on General Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederate Army of Tennessee at Dalton, Georgia. Thomas was not to bring on a general battle, but rather just keep Johnston occupied so he could not reinforce Polk.

Sherman learned that keeping his plans secret would be more difficult than anticipated. Forrest reported to Polk on the 31st, “A gentleman just from Memphis says the enemy design moving a large force from Vicksburg on Jackson and contemplate rebuilding the railroad between those points and moving from Jackson on Mobile and Meridian.” Nevertheless, Sherman’s campaign of destruction began as scheduled in February.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 358, 362; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 923; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 391; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 457-58

Davis Demands Confederate Independence

January 8, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis responded to a letter from North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance urging the Confederate government to try negotiating peace with the U.S. to ease the growing discontent in his state.

Near the end of 1863, Vance wrote Davis about the mounting dissatisfaction among the people in his state regarding the war. Vance wrote, “I have concluded that it will be impossible to remove it except by making some effort at negotiation with the enemy” to relieve “the sources of discontent in North Carolina.”

Vance acknowledged that negotiations must only be conducted on the basis of Confederate independence, and if these “fair terms are rejected” as anticipated, then “it will tend greatly to strengthen and intensify the war feeling, and will rally all classes to more cordial support of the government.”

He then referred Davis to President Abraham Lincoln’s recent Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, under which 10 percent of a state’s eligible voters could form a new, Unionist state government to rule over the other 90 percent. Vance was concerned that the mounting dissension in North Carolina could produce the requisite 10 percent who would want to return to the Union.

Vance stated “that for the sake of humanity, without having any weak or improper motives attributed to us, we might, with propriety, constantly tender negotiations.” He wrote, “Though statesmen might regard this as useless, the people will not and I think our cause will be strengthened thereby.” The purpose of Vance’s letter was to get Davis to ask the U.S. to negotiate peace, knowing that the U.S. would reject the request. Vance could then use this rejection to show North Carolinians that it was the U.S., not the Confederacy, that was unwilling to talk peace.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis’s response did not seem to acknowledge Vance’s true purpose. Instead, the president explained that he had always wanted peace, and had even sent envoys to negotiate peace with the U.S., only to be rejected. No peace could be had that would return the southern states to the Union because, Davis wrote, “Have we not just been apprised by that despot (Lincoln) that we can only expect his gracious pardon by emancipating all our slaves, swearing allegiance and obedience to him and his proclamation, and becoming in point of fact the slaves of our own negroes?”

Appealing to the patriotism of Vance’s state, Davis asked, “Can there be in North Carolina one citizen so fallen beneath the dignity of his ancestors as to accept, or to enter into conference on the basis of these terms?” He acknowledged that some may consider negotiating a return to the Union, but even the “vilest wretch” would not accept emancipation as a condition of their return.

Regarding Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation, Davis argued:

“If we break up our Government, dissolve the Confederacy, disband our armies, emancipate our slaves, take an oath of allegiance binding ourselves to obedience to him and disloyalty to our own States, he proposes to pardon us, and not to plunder us of anything more than the property already stolen from us, and such slaves as still remain.”

Lincoln’s decree only sought to “sow discord and suspicion” by pledging to “support with his army one-tenth of the people… over the other nine-tenths.” This would “excite them to civil war in furtherance of his ends.” No, Davis would not negotiate peace on those terms. He would only negotiate on the basis of Confederate independence and maintaining slavery. He concluded:

“To obtain the sole terms to which you or I could listen, this struggle must continue until the enemy is beaten out of his vain confidence in our subjugation. Then, and not till then, will it be possible to treat of peace. Till then, all tender of terms to the enemy will be received as proof that we are ready for submission, and will encourage him in the atrocious warfare which he is now waging.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 450, 454; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 696-97

Reconsidering the Confederate Partisan Ranger System

January 7, 1864 – Colonel John Singleton Mosby’s Confederate partisan rangers operated in northern Virginia, while calls grew louder among Confederate officers to ban the partisan ranger system.

John S. Mosby | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Throughout the winter, Mosby’s rangers operated around Warrenton, an area nicknamed “Mosby’s Confederacy.” Mosby’s men technically belonged to the 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia, but under the Partisan Ranger Act, they acted independently and lived among the citizenry. Unlike many rangers who disdained military regulations, Mosby’s troopers were respected as effective members of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry.

Mosby’s activities mainly included raiding Federal wagon trains and scouting. Federal cavalry stationed at Warrenton under Colonel John P. Taylor routinely rode throughout the countryside in search of Mosby’s elusive rangers. In early January, troopers from Colonel Henry Cole’s 1st Maryland Potomac Home Brigade entered Virginia via Harpers Ferry to hunt Mosby down. But when a detachment of 80 men left Rectortown, Mosby’s men pursued and attacked, killing four, wounding 10, and capturing 41.

Another Federal detachment attacked and scattered Mosby’s command, but a portion counterattacked, capturing 25 Federals and 50 horses. A separate detachment from Mosby under Lieutenant “Fighting Tom” Turner launched a surprise attack on Taylor’s Federals at Warrenton, taking another 20 prisoners. Mosby soon turned his attention back to Cole’s battalion.

Mosby led about 100 rangers to Loudon Heights, overlooking Harpers Ferry, where Cole and about 200 Federals were camped on the night of the 9th. Mosby later reported, “The camp was buried in profound sleep, there was not a sentinel awake.” However, the Federals quickly awoke and attacked Mosby’s force. Mosby ordered a charge, but the Federals inflicted numerous casualties. One of Mosby’s rangers later recalled:

“The dead and dying lay around. From the tents came forth moans of pain and shrieks of agony. Some of the combatants stood almost in reach of one another, firing into each other’s face, crying out: ‘Surrender!’ ‘No, I won’t! You surrender!’”

The Confederates ultimately drove the Federals off. Mosby reported, “Confusion and delaying having ensued from the derangement of my plans, consequent on the alarm given to the enemy, rendered it hazardous to continue in my position, as re-enforcements were near the enemy.” With the infantry at Harpers Ferry mobilizing, Mosby ordered a withdrawal.

The rangers sustained just 12 casualties (eight killed, three wounded, and one captured) while inflicting 26 (four killed, 16 wounded, and six taken prisoner). However, the Confederates were not used to either taking casualties or retreating. As such, an officer later wrote, “A sad and sullen silence pervaded our ranks and found expression in every countenance. All that we could have gained would not compensate for the loss we sustained.”

While the “Gray Ghost” and his rangers would live to fight another day, Confederate officials debated how they should be organized. More and more officers in the Confederate armies were complaining about the partisan rangers. The rangers did not have to strictly adhere to army regulations, they could live among the people, and they could enjoy the bounties they captured. Perhaps most importantly, they encouraged soldiers to desert the army in favor of this more adventurous (and less regulatory) branch of service.

General Robert E. Lee, who originally supported the partisan ranger system, urged the War Department to disband these units in 1863 due to their lack of discipline, their harassment of civilians, and their tendency to draw troops from the regular armies. Secretary of War James A. Seddon responded in November 1863 by banning all partisan ranger outfits except those commanded by John H. McNeill in West Virginia and Mosby in northern Virginia.

In December 1863, Brigadier General Thomas L. Rosser, a cavalry brigade commander under Jeb Stuart, reported that 60 of his men deserted while serving in the Shenandoah Valley. Rosser stated that the men had once belonged to a partisan unit that was forced to join the regular cavalry, and they left because they had grown tired of army regulations. Rosser also had problems working with McNeill, who often refused to follow his orders.

This month, Rosser wrote to Lee describing the partisans as “a nuisance and an evil to the service”:

“Without discipline, order, or organization, they roam broadcast over the country, a band of thieves, stealing, pillaging, plundering, and doing every manner of mischief and crime. They are a terror to the citizens and an injury to the cause. They never fight; can’t be made to fight. Their leaders are generally brave, but few of the men are good soldiers, and have engaged in this business for the sake of gain. The effect upon the service is bad, and I think, if possible, it should be corrected.”

Rosser cited three reasons why all partisan units should be disbanded:

  • Instead of roaming the countryside, their “bayonet or saber should be counted on the field of battle when the life or death of our country is the issue.”
  • They caused “great dissatisfaction in the ranks” because they “are allowed so much latitude, so many privileges. They sleep in houses and turn out in the cold only when it is announced by their chief that they are to go upon a plundering expedition.”
  • They encouraged desertion:

“It is almost impossible for one to manage the different companies of my brigade that are from Loudoun, Fauquier, Fairfax, &c., the region occupied by Mosby. They see these men living at their ease and enjoying the comforts of home, allowed to possess all that they capture, and their duties mere pastime pleasures compared with their own arduous ones; and it is a natural consequence in the nature of man that he should become dissatisfied under these circumstances. Patriotism fails in the long and tedious war like this to sustain the ponderous burdens which bear heavily and cruelly upon the heart and soul of man.”

To remedy the “melancholy” spreading among his men, Rosser urged his superiors to place “all men on the same footing.” If partisan activity was needed for the war effort, “then require the commanding officer to keep them in an organized condition, to rendezvous within our lines, and move upon the enemy when opportunity is offered.” While Rosser singled Mosby out as a “gallant officer,” he argued that Mosby’s service had little impact on the war.

Lee consulted with Stuart, who agreed with everything that Rosser wrote. Stuart contended that Mosby’s partisans were “the only efficient band of rangers I know of,” but he often used just “one-fourth of his nominal strength” while his other three-fourths were living comfortably among civilians. Stuart concluded, “Such organizations, as a rule, are detrimental to the best interests of the army at large.”

Based on this, Lee wrote, “I recommend that the law authorizing these partisan corps be abolished. The evils resulting from their organization more than counterbalance the good they accomplish.” A bill was immediately introduced in the Confederate Congress to repeal the Partisan Ranger Act.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Jones, Virgil Carrington (Pat), Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 561; Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (Series 1, Volume 33), p. 12-16, 457, 1081-83; Ramage, James A., Gray Ghost: The Life of Col. John Singleton Mosby (University Press of Kentucky, 2009); Wert, Jeffry D., Mosby’s Rangers (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991); Williamson, James Joseph, Mosby’s Rangers: A Record of the Operations of the Forty-Third Battalion (1909)