Tag Archives: Ambrose E. Burnside

The Battle of Haw’s Shop

May 26, 1864 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia clashed as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant once again looked to turn General Robert E. Lee’s right flank.

By this time, the Federal and Confederate armies were deadlocked on the North Anna River, with neither force able to break the other’s defenses. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had responded to two prior stalemates by moving southeast, around the Confederate right, to get closer to Richmond. But this time he considered something different.

At a council of war on the night of the 25th, Major General George G. Meade, the Federal army commander, argued for another movement around Lee’s right. Grant, however, called for a movement around Lee’s left. This would cut the Confederate army off from being supplied by the Shenandoah Valley, and it could also confuse Lee in such a way that he might put his army in a vulnerable position.

Grant issued orders the next day, but before the army even began mobilizing, he received word that Lee was strengthening his left flank in anticipation of just such a move. Lee wrote of Grant, “From present indication, he seems to contemplate a movement on our left flank.” Grant quickly changed the plan, as he reported to Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck:

“To make a direct attack from either wing would cause a slaughter of our men that even success would not justify. To turn the enemy by his right, between the two Annas (North and South Anna rivers) is impossible on account of the swamp upon which his right rests. To turn him by the left leaves Little River, New Found River and South Anna River, all of them streams presenting considerable obstacles to the movement of our army, to be crossed. I have determined therefore to turn the enemy’s right by crossing at or near Hanover Town. This crosses all three streams at once, and leaves us still where we can draw supplies.”

Federal cavalry demonstrated on the Confederate left to mask the movement to the right. Lee, still bedridden from acute diarrhea, tried discerning whether the activity on his left indicated a general advance or a feint. Conflicting reports came to headquarters stating that Grant intended to attack both. The Confederates were not aware that Grant intended to move east of the Pamunkey River to Hanovertown. Reaching this abandoned port would place the Federals just 15 miles northeast of Richmond.

The Federals began pulling out of their entrenchments that night, ending the stalemate on the North Anna. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps and Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps stayed in place while Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps and Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps swung around them. Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry troopers, back from their raid earlier in the month, led the way to Hanovertown, about 34 miles southeast.

Maj. Gen. P.H. Sheridan | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Sheridan reached the town on the 27th, with the infantry on its way. A Federal cavalry brigade of Michiganders under Brigadier General George A. Custer secured a crossing on the Pamunkey just north of Hanovertown after a sharp skirmish with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s Confederate horsemen.

When Lee learned that the Federals had left their defenses on the North Anna, he directed the Confederates to fall back to Atlee’s Station, just nine miles north of Richmond on the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee reached his objective before Grant reached his, having to cover just 18 miles. The Confederates quickly sealed all approaches to Richmond on the railroad from the Pamunkey.

Lee sought to secure the high ground on the south bank of the Totopotomoy Creek, which ran west into the Pamunkey just south of Hanovertown. Lee dispatched cavalry forces under Major General Wade Hampton to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine whether the Federals intended to stop at Hanovertown or continue south around Lee’s right flank.

General Wade Hampton | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hampton’s Confederates moved out from Atlee’s Station on the 28th, probing eastward while one of Sheridan’s brigades under Brigadier General David M. Gregg probed westward from Hanovertown. Gregg met Hampton about three miles west of Hanovertown and a mile west of a blacksmith shop called Haw’s Shop. Hampton’s dismounted troopers awaited Gregg behind breastworks, supported by artillery.

A vicious fight ensued that grew into the largest cavalry battle since Brandy Station last June. Both sides tried flanking the other, with Brigadier General Alfred T.A. Torbert’s Federal division arriving to extend Gregg’s right and repelling a Confederate flanking maneuver. Finally, Custer’s Michiganders arrived on the scene, and their repeating Spencer carbines turned the tide for the Federals, and Hampton’s troopers withdrew.

The fight at Haw’s Shop lasted about seven hours, and although it was a battle between cavalries, the men fought dismounted behind defenses like infantry. Sheridan claimed victory because Hampton withdrew, but Sheridan committed only one of his two divisions to the fight. He might have destroyed Hampton had he deployed more men.

Hampton claimed victory because he learned during the fight that the Federals had crossed the Pamunkey in force, and he prevented Sheridan from learning where Lee’s army was. Hampton had also delayed the Federal advance for seven hours before finally pulling back.

Lee set up headquarters in the Clarke house, where the owner allowed him to conduct all his business indoors due to his continuing illness. Grant transferred the Federal supply base from Port Royal on the Rappahannock to White House on the Pamunkey. Confident that he was wearing the Confederates down, Grant wrote to Halleck:

“Lee’s army is really whipped. The prisoners we now take show it, and the actions of his army show it unmistakably. A battle with them outside of intrenchments cannot be had. Our men feel that they have gained the morale over the enemy, and attack him with confidence. I may be mistaken but I feel that our success over Lee’s army is already assured. The promptness and rapidity with which you have forwarded reinforcements has contributed largely to the feeling of confidence inspired in our men, and to break down that of the enemy.”

But the Army of Northern Virginia still had some fight left.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20321; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 414-15; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5814-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 445-46; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7235-58; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 434; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 137, 148-49; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 71-72; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 509-10; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 149-50, 551

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The Battle of the North Anna: Lee Sets a Trap

May 24, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee positioned his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to invite a Federal attack and waited for Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to take the bait.

Lee’s army formed an inverted “V” with its apex pointing north, anchored at Ox Ford on the North Anna River. The left side of the V ran southwest, and the right side ran southeast, guarding the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction.

Army positions as of 24 May | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac, with Grant in overall command, held a line running from northwest to southeast of Ox Ford. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps was on the southern bank of the river at Jericho Mills to the northwest. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps crossed behind Warren on the morning of the 24th, and both corps marched to the Virginia Central Railroad around 11 a.m.

To the southeast, Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps faced Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederates guarding Ox Ford. To Burnside’s left, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps threatened the river crossings at Chesterfield Bridge and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad bridge farther downstream.

The bulk of Hancock’s corps pushed its way across the Chesterfield Bridge at 8 a.m. Major General John Gibbon’s division under Hancock approached the railroad bridge but discovered that Confederates had destroyed it. The Federals improvised by felling a tree and using it to span the river.

Grant saw that the Federals were crossing with ease, unaware that this was part of Lee’s trap. He telegraphed Washington, “The enemy have fallen back from North Anna. We are in pursuit.” Assuming that Lee would retreat to at least the South Anna River, six miles farther south, Grant wrote, “I will probably know to-day if the enemy intends standing behind South Anna.”

The Confederates opposed the Federal crossing at Ox Ford, and as Lee hoped, the Federals believed this was just a rear guard action. Burnside directed one of his divisions to move upriver and cross at Quarles Mill. Once across, they were to march back downriver to Ox Ford and attack the Confederate line from the northwest.

The Federals crossed as ordered, with Brigadier General James Ledlie’s brigade in the lead. Ledlie ordered an attack, despite signs of strong Confederate opposition ahead. Confederate infantry and artillery easily repelled the assault, during which Ledlie was drunk. A storm broke as the Federals fell back to Quarles Mill, where Ledlie actually received praise (and later a promotion) for his brigade’s gallantry under fire, despite his noticeable drunkenness.

Meanwhile, Hancock’s corps moved south from the Chesterfield and railroad bridges. The Federals were stopped by the Confederate defenders under Major General Richard H. Anderson and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell. The fighting was suspended due to the thunderstorm, but when the rain slackened, the Federals still could not penetrate the strong enemy lines.

Lee now had the Federals right where he wanted them. They were divided into three segments (Warren/Wright, Burnside, and Hancock) with each one vulnerable to an overwhelming attack. But Lee could not coordinate such an assault due to exhaustion and debilitating diarrhea. Bedridden, Lee said, “We must strike them a blow–we must never let them pass again–we must strike them a blow.”

But Lee had no subordinate on which he could depend to lead the way. James Longstreet was gone with a serious wound, Jeb Stuart was dead, Richard Ewell was suffering from exhaustion, A.P. Hill was battling illness, and Richard H. Anderson was unproven as a corps commander. The Confederates stayed on the defensive.

Hancock informed Meade at 6:30 p.m. that the Confederates were dug in too strongly to be dislodged. Grant ordered a halt to all advances. He directed Burnside to use two of his divisions to connect with Hancock while keeping one at Ox Ford and one at Quarles Mill. Grant and Lee now held lines similar to each other’s, both of which were virtually impregnable. As Grant later wrote:

“Lee now had his entire army south of the North Anna. Our lines covered his front, with the six miles separating the two wings guarded by but a single division. To get from one wing to the other the river would have to be crossed twice. Lee could reinforce any part of his line from all points of it in a very short march; or could concentrate the whole of it wherever he might choose to assault. We were, for the time, practically two armies besieging.”

The next morning, Warren probed Hill’s defenses and reported they were too strong to attack. Wright tried moving around Hill’s left flank but found that it was protected by Major General Wade Hampton’s cavalry. Burnside and Hancock held their lines but did not try advancing any further. Skirmishing broke out at various points as Federal troops wrecked about five miles of the Virginia Central Railroad, which the Confederates relied upon for supplies from the Shenandoah Valley.

The armies remained stationary on the 26th, ending major operations on the North Anna River. In the four days of fighting from the 23rd through the 26th, the Federals sustained 2,623 casualties, while the Confederates lost between 1,500 and 2,000. Lee did not consider this a Confederate success because he could not draw Grant into an open battle, but his army remained between the Federals and Richmond, and Lee retained his supply line.

Grant’s forward progress had been stopped a third time by Lee, and while Grant had skirted around Lee’s right the first two times, he was now deep in enemy territory and running out of ground to continue that maneuver.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 483; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312-21; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412-13; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443-44; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7210, 7222; Grant, Ulysses S., Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1982 [original 1885, republication of 1952 edition]), p. 432; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 135-37; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507-09; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 428

The Battle of the North Anna

May 23, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attacked a force from the Federal Army of the Potomac as it crossed the North Anna River.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

On the morning of the 23rd, Lee reunited his army when Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps arrived. Lee arranged the forces to defend both Richmond and the vital railroad intersection at Hanover Junction:

  • Hill’s corps held the army’s left flank, extending northwest
  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps held the right flank, extending east
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps held the center, which curled along the North Anna
  • Confederates from both Ewell’s and Anderson’s corps guarded Hanover Junction
  • Confederates under Major Generals John C. Breckinridge and George Pickett were in reserve

Meanwhile, the Federal army began gathering near Mount Carmel Church, about a mile north of the North Anna on the Telegraph Road. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, issued orders:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps would move west and cross the North Anna at Jericho Mills
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps would move south down the Telegraph Road and cross the North Anna using the Chesterfield Bridge
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps would follow Warren
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps would follow Hancock

Lee did not expect a confrontation; he guessed that any activity in his front would be just a diversion for another effort by Grant to move southeast around the Confederate right flank. He wrote his wife that Grant had “become tired of forcing his passage through us.” As such, only a small Confederate force guarded Chesterfield Bridge, and all other crossings on the line were undefended. Moreover, Lee was suffering from exhaustion and acute diarrhea, making him unable to ride his horse. This gave Grant a great opportunity to smash through Lee’s army if he brought his full force to bear.

The Confederates rested during the day, but due to dwindling supplies, the men received just a pint of cornmeal and a quarter-pound of bacon. They were unaware that the Federals were approaching. On the Confederate left, Warren’s men finally found the undefended Jericho Mills after getting lost in the woods, and the three divisions were across the North Anna by around 4:30 p.m.

Based on the ease in which he crossed, Warren reported to headquarters, “I do not believe the enemy intends holding the North Anna.” Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac under Grant, ordered Warren to establish a beachhead on the southern bank and build defenses. Learning that the Confederates were guarding the Virginia Central Railroad ahead, Warren deployed his men in line of battle and advanced.

Lee received word that Federals had crossed on his left flank, but he still believed that this was either just a scouting expedition or a ruse. He directed A.P. Hill to dispatch just one division, under Major General Cadmus M. Wilcox, with artillery support to meet the threat. The Confederates were outnumbered five-to-two (i.e., 15,000 to 6,000).

Wilcox’s Confederates attacked the surprised Federals around 6 p.m. and nearly broke their line. However, the Federals regrouped, and their artillery atop a bluff overlooking the North Anna held the Confederates at bay. Warren’s overwhelming forces began flanking Wilcox, who ordered a withdrawal when no reinforcements were forthcoming.

Warren sustained 377 casualties while Wilcox lost 730. Warren’s men built defenses on their beachhead at Jericho Mills. Lee admonished Hill for failing to bring up the rest of his corps to support Wilcox: “General Hill, why did you let those people cross here? Why didn’t you throw your whole force on them and drive them back as (‘Stonewall’) Jackson would have done?”

To the southeast, Hancock’s corps approached Chesterfield Bridge. Hancock dispatched a probing force, and then reported upon their return, “No crossing of the river can be forced here at present, as all accounts agree that the enemy are in force, and there is a creek between us and the river, with obstacles.” Hancock deployed his artillery, and a two-hour cannon duel ensued. Lee was nearly killed by a cannonball that lodged in the door of the house where he was observing the action.

When the duel ended, Hancock ordered an attack. Quickly overwhelmed, the Confederates fled across the bridge to the south bank. Grant later wrote, “The bridge was carried quickly, the enemy retreating over it so hastily that many were shoved into the river, and some of them were drowned.” Federal sharpshooters prevented the Confederates from burning the bridge after crossing, and Confederate artillery fire prevented Hancock’s men from crossing the bridge. The Federals dug entrenchments on the northern bank instead.

That night, Wright’s VI Corps arrived on the opposite bank in support of Warren. Burnside’s IX Corps came up on Wright’s left near Ox Ford, and Hancock remained entrenched in front of Chesterfield Bridge to Burnside’s left.

Lee finally realized that a major engagement was developing, and he would not give up Hanover Junction without a fight. He worked with his engineers through the night to establish an inverted V-shaped line. The apex was at Ox Ford, with the left extending southwest and the right extending southeast to Hanover Junction.

As the Confederates formed this new line, it appeared to the Federals as if they were retreating and leaving just a token force at Ox Ford. But if Grant tried attacking that point, the two sides of the inverted V could split his army. A.P. Hill’s corps would hold Warren and Wright at Jericho Mills, while Anderson and Ewell faced Burnside and Hancock at Ox Ford and Chesterfield Bridge. Breckinridge and Pickett remained in reserve. Lee said of Grant, “If I can get one more pull at him, I will defeat him.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 84-87; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20312; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132-34; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551

Northern Virginia: Showdown at the North Anna

May 22, 1864 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia arrived at the North Anna River ahead of the Federal Army of the Potomac, once again blocking Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant’s southeastern movement toward Richmond.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Lee had anticipated that Grant would move southeast again and shifted his forces to protect Hanover Junction, where the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads intersected two miles south of the North Anna. From this point, Lee could defend Richmond, secure his right flank, and protect the railroads. But he would be just 23 miles from the Confederate capital.

Grant had hoped to either coax Lee into a battle on open ground or reach the North Anna first, but he did neither. When he realized that Lee’s Confederates were already on the North Anna, he halted the brief Federal pursuit down the Telegraph Road. The remaining Confederates moved south down this road and joined the main army:

  • Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps guarded the railroad intersection at Hanover Junction
  • Major General Richard H. Anderson’s corps lined up on Ewell’s left around 12 p.m.
  • Major General John C. Breckinridge’s two brigades from the Shenandoah Valley and Major General George Pickett’s five brigades from Richmond were held in reserve behind Ewell
  • Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps was still heading south to join the main army

Lee informed President Jefferson Davis that Grant may stay on the other side of the Mattapony (now Mattaponi) River from the Confederates so he could relink with Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, which had joined the Army of the James after their raid and fight at Yellow Tavern. Lee reported:

“It appeared… that he (Grant) was endeavoring to place the Matapony river between him and our army, which secured his flank, and by rapid movements to join his cavalry under Sheridan to attack Richmond–I therefore thought it safest to move to the Annas to intercept his march, and to be within easy reach of Richmond.”

Grant transferred the Federal supply base from the depots at Belle Plain, Aquia Landing, and Fredericksburg to Port Royal, farther down the Rappahannock River. Through the day, Grant and Major General George G. Meade positioned their Federals:

  • Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps moved west of Milford Station, north of Hanover Junction
  • Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps moved between Milford Station and Hanover Junction
  • Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps moved between Warren and Hancock
  • Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps held Guinea Station in the rear

Meade wrote his wife:

“We expected to have another battle, but the enemy refuses to fight unless attacked in strong entrenchments; hence, when we moved on his flank, instead of coming out of his works and attacking us, he has fallen back from Spottsylvania Court House, and taken up a new position behind the North Anna River; in other words, performed the same operation which I did last fall, when I fell back from Culpeper, and for which I was ridiculed; that is to say, refusing to fight on my adversary’s terms. I suppose now we will have to repeat this turning operation, and continue to do so, till Lee gets into Richmond.”

Lee wrote Davis the next morning, assessing the situation and opining that the Federal army, “as far as I am able to judge, has been very much shaken.” Lee also responded to a proposal in which his army would fall back and join forces with the Confederates under P.G.T. Beauregard bottling up Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James at Bermuda Hundred; the combined force would move north to defeat Grant and then move south to defeat Butler.

Lee stated that if Beauregard did not plan to attack Butler, “no more troops are necessary there than to retain the enemy in his entrenchments.” Meanwhile, “General Grant’s army will be in the field, strengthened by all available troops from the north, and it seems to me our best policy to unite upon it and endeavor to crush it. I should be very glad to have the aide of General Beauregard in such a blow, and if it is possible to combine, I think it will succeed.”

In response to Davis’s fear that a retreat by Lee’s army might damage troop morale, Lee wrote, “The courage of this army was never better, and I fear no injury to it from any retrograde movement that may be dictated by sound military policy.”

Lee did not expect Grant to attack at Hanover Junction; he guessed that Grant would try flanking him to the southeast again. However, the Federals began deploying for battle on the night of the 22nd, determined to cross the North Anna. The relentless marching and fighting that had not stopped since May 5 would continue.

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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. 412; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 443; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 132; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 507

Northern Virginia: Race to the North Anna

May 20, 1864 – Major fighting between the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia stopped as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant prepared to make another move.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Since Grant led the Federal army across the Rapidan River on the 4th, he had lost 36,065 killed, wounded, or missing in the Wilderness and around Spotsylvania Court House. Almost another 20,000 left the army due to illness, desertion, or enlistment expiration. Thus, the 122,000-man army that had begun this campaign was reduced to about 66,000 in less than three weeks.

For the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee had lost over 20,000 men in the same timeframe from combat and illness. Though this was far less than Grant, Lee could ill afford such losses considering his army only numbered about 65,000 men when the campaign began. He now had closer to 40,000 troops, and even worse, his cavalry commander (Jeb Stuart) was killed, his top corps commander (James Longstreet) was put out of action, and his other two corps commanders (Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill) were gravely ill.

The Confederates had scored tactical victories in every engagement of the campaign thus far, but the Federals had secured the strategic advantage by gradually moving southeast after each contest and getting closer to Richmond. And if this became a war of attrition, the Federals would surely win.

After 12 days of the most intense fighting of the war at Spotsylvania, the 20th was relatively quiet, with the men on both sides remaining behind their fortifications for the most part. Lee reported to Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy has continued quiet to-day; he is taking ground toward our right and intrenching, but whether for attack or defense is not apparent.”

President Jefferson Davis wrote a long letter to Lee about the action on other fronts. Davis described how P.G.T. Beauregard’s Confederates drove Benjamin F. Butler’s Army of the James away from Richmond and bottled him up at Bermuda Hundred. He also relayed news of John C. Breckinridge’s remarkable Confederate victory at New Market in the Shenandoah Valley. In response to Lee’s request for reinforcements, Davis replied that he could now have most of Breckinridge’s force, as well as 6,000 troops from Beauregard under Major Generals George Pickett and Robert F. Hoke.

Davis shared Beauregard’s idea that Lee “should fall back to the line of the Chickahominy, and that he (Beauregard) should move up with 15,000 men to unite with Breckinridge and fall upon the flank of Grant’s army, which it is presumed will be following yours, and after the success to be obtained there, he (Beauregard) should hasten back, reinforced by you, to attack Butler’s forces, after an absence of three, and not to exceed four, days.”

This was a very daring and (characteristically) elaborate plan by Beauregard. Davis was skeptical, not only because of the risk involved, but because it would involve Lee’s army retreating to the Chickahominy River. Davis wrote, “How far the morale of your army would be affected by a retrograde movement, no one can judge as well as yourself. It would certainly encourage the enemy.” Rather than reject the plan, Davis asked for Lee’s opinion:

“You are better informed than any other can be of the necessities of your position, at least as well informed as any other of the wants and dangers of the country in your rear, including the railroad and other lines of communication, and I cannot do better than to leave your judgment to reach its own conclusions.”

Davis then updated Lee on events in Georgia, including Joseph E. Johnston’s many retreats:

“I cannot judge of the circumstances which caused Genl Johnston to retire from Dalton to Calhoun. He may have been willing to allow the enemy to pass the (Rocky Face) Ridge and may prefer to fight him on the Etowah River. I hope the future will prove the wisdom of his course, and that we shall hereafter reap advantages that will compensate for the present disappointment.”

Meanwhile, Lee knew that Grant would not stay quiet for long. He called on Breckinridge to send every available man to Hanover Junction, an important railroad intersection just south of the North Anna River, which Lee guessed that Grant would target. Sure enough, Grant issued orders for another southeastern movement, around Lee’s right flank toward Hanover Junction.

Some Confederates began expressing frustration with the constant marching and fighting, having never before faced such a relentless enemy commander. One Confederate wrote, “We have met a man, this time, who either does not know when he is whipped, or who cares not if he loses his whole Army.”

Some Federals began expressing frustration as well. While they had initially been emboldened by Grant’s refusal to retreat, they now began noting that after every major confrontation, they were the ones to disengage and move to different ground, despite their superiority in manpower, armament, and supplies.

Hoping to force Lee into the open, Grant directed just one corps–Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s–to make the move. If Lee attacked this isolated force, Grant could then hit Lee’s vulnerable left flank at Spotsylvania with his remaining three corps. If Lee did not attack, Grant could still gain an advantage by Hancock reaching the North Anna ahead of the Confederates.

Lee learned of Hancock’s movement at 1 a.m. on the 21st and, unwilling to leave Spotsylvania yet, extended Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps to block the Telegraph Road, thinking that Hancock would be using this thoroughfare to push south. Ewell’s Confederates began moving toward the road at 4 a.m. At 9:30, Grant directed another corps–Major General Gouverneur Warren’s–to follow Hancock on a parallel route down the Telegraph Road, unaware that it was blocked.

When Grant learned of Ewell’s presence, he directed Warren to change direction and follow the same route that Hancock took. Hancock’s Federals moved through Guinea Station and reached Bowling Green at dawn. They then continued to Milford Station, where they encountered newly arrived Confederates under Pickett. Hancock, now aware that Lee’s army was being reinforced, halted until he could gauge the enemy’s strength.

With Confederates now at Milford Station, the Telegraph Road, and Spotsylvania, the Federal army was dangerously strung out in enemy territory. Grant therefore ordered his remaining two corps under Major Generals Horatio G. Wright and Ambrose E. Burnside to leave their trenches at Spotsylvania and join the rest of the army. Burnside’s Federals moved out first, heading down the Telegraph Road and then changing direction just as Warren did and moving toward Guinea Station instead. Wright followed Burnside.

Scouts informed Lee that the Federal trenches at Spotsylvania were empty, so Lee directed his remaining corps under Major Generals Richard H. Anderson and Jubal Early to move south to the North Anna River. The Confederates had the advantage of moving along interior roads and thus arrived there before the Federals. Not only did Grant fail to coax Lee into attacking Hancock, but he failed to be the first to reach the North Anna as well.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20305-12, 20404; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 412; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 5129-39, 5591-601, 5658-78; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 442-43; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7142-53; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 126-30; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 506-07; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 551 | 709

Spotsylvania: Federals Attack Again

May 18, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed his Federals to launch another attack in hopes of turning the flank of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

Lt Gen U.S. Grant and Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Since the horrible battle on the 12th, both armies had shifted positions and skirmished without provoking a major confrontation. Grant, the overall Federal commander, sought to slide Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac to the left, or southeast, to try turning Lee’s right flank.

Major General Gouverneur Warren’s V Corps had begun moving from its spot on the far right of the Federal line to the left, beside Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps, on a line running roughly north to south. Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps had followed Warren and took positions on Warren’s left, securing the high ground on Myers Hill after an all-day skirmish on the 14th.

Both Burnside’s corps and II Corps under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock held their positions in front of what was once the Mule Shoe salient of the Confederate line. Hancock now held the extreme Federal right. Heavy rain fell for several days, suspending any plans Grant had to renew his large-scale attacks.

The Federals had inflicted heavy damage on Lee’s army, but they had not scored any major advantages. The Confederates still held Spotsylvania Court House, including the vital intersection of the Virginia Central and the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac railroads. This enabled supplies to continue reaching the Confederate troops without interruption. Nevertheless, President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to better protect himself from enemy fire because “The country could not bear the loss of you…”

Lee did not immediately react to the new Federal threat to his right. As Wright’s corps got into position on the 14th, Lee left Spotsylvania Court House undefended. But the Federals were too exhausted to capitalize, and Lee finally directed Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps to shift from the Confederate left to the right. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps now faced Hancock, with the men from Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps and Anderson’s corps facing Burnside, Warren, and Wright.

On the 17th, Grant learned from Confederate prisoners that Lee was shifting men from his left to his right flank to counter the Federal movement. Guessing that this made Lee’s left vulnerable, Grant ordered Wright’s Federals to countermarch from their position on the Federal left to the position they had held four days ago, on the right of Hancock’s troops.

Actions of May 17-18 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Ewell’s Confederates held strong defensive positions, covered by artillery. And they would not be surprised like they had been on the 12th. The men under Wright and Hancock advanced slowly on the morning of the 18th, seizing the “Bloody Angle” of what had been the Mule Shoe salient. Around 8 a.m., Ewell ordered his 29 guns to open fire, and after sustaining about 2,000 casualties in two hours, the Federals fell back. A Federal officer recalled:

“Moments seemed like hours. Then the cheering ceased and dark masses of our men were seen through the openings in the uprising smoke returning as they went but with awfully suggestive gaps in their ranks. The assault had failed. Soon the smoke cleared away and disclosed the ground for long distances thickly strewn with our dead and dying men. It was an awfully grand spectacle, one often repeated around that ground which has been justly styled ‘Bloody Spotsylvania.’”

Colonel Theodore Lyman of Meade’s staff noticed a pattern emerging in this campaign:

“It is a rule that, when the Rebels halt, the first day gives them a good riflepit; the second, a regular infantry parapet with artillery in position; and the third a parapet with an abattis in front and entrenched batteries behind. Sometimes they put this three days’ work into the first 24 hours.”

Lee informed Secretary of War James A. Seddon, “The enemy opened his batteries at sunrise on a portion of Ewell’s line, attempted an assault, but failed. He was easily repulsed.” Meade wrote his wife after the engagement, “We found the enemy so strongly entrenched that even Grant thought it useless to knock our heads against a brick wall. We shall now try to maneuver again so as to draw the enemy out of his stronghold.” Lee reported the situation to Davis:

“(Grant’s) position is strongly entrenched, and we cannot attack it with any prospect of success without great loss of men which I wish to avoid if possible. The enemy’s artillery is superior in weight of metal and range to our own, and my object has been to engage him when in motion and under circumstances that will not cause us to suffer from this disadvantage. I think by this means he has suffered considerably in the several past combats, and that his progress has thus far been arrested. I shall continue to strike him wherever opportunity presents itself, but nothing at present indicates any purpose on his part to advance. Neither the strength of our army nor the condition of our animals will admit of any extensive movement with a view to drawing the enemy from his position. I think he is now waiting for reenforcements… The importance of this campaign to the administration of Mr. Lincoln and to General Grant leaves no doubt that every effort and every sacrifice will be made to secure its success.”

Later, Lee repeated his request for Davis to send him the troops currently guarding Richmond, adding, “The question is whether we shall fight the battle here or around Richmond. If the troops are obliged to be retained at Richmond I may be forced back.”

After this sharp Federal defeat, Grant returned to headquarters, where he received more bad news: the armies of Major Generals Franz Sigel and Benjamin F. Butler had also been defeated. Grant tried remaining optimistic, but he conceded:

“I thought the other day that they must feel pretty blue in Richmond over the reports of our victories; but as they are in direct telegraphic communication with the points at which the fighting took place, they were no doubt at the same time aware of our defeats, of which we have not learned till to-day; so probably they did not feel as badly as we imagined.”

Early on the 19th, Lee directed Ewell to conduct a reconnaissance in force to determine the location of the Federal right flank. Ewell dispatched two divisions that came up against Wright’s corps around the Harris farm, and vicious fighting ensued. Lee recalled the Confederates before they were caught in a full-scale battle while isolated from the rest of the army, but they did not disengage until 9 p.m., and many were captured after getting lost in the dark. The Confederates lost 900 killed, wounded, or missing.

This ended active operations around Spotsylvania Court House. Two weeks of constant marching and fighting, combined with enlistment expirations, had cut the Army of the Potomac nearly in half since the campaign began. Lee, having lost nearly 18,000 men in that same span, now had just about 40,000 troops left. He had also lost top lieutenants James Longstreet, Jeb Stuart, and A.P. Hill. Lee soon learned that Grant was maneuvering around his right flank once more, prompting him to shift his Confederates south toward the North Anna River.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 478; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 460; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 407, 409-10; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 440-41; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7094, 7118-29; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-25, 130; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 501-02, 504-05; 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. 732; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 709

Spotsylvania: Terrible Fighting at the Mule Shoe

May 12, 1864 – Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant ordered a massive Federal assault on a salient in the line of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

A portion of the Confederate defenses in the northeastern sector protruded from the rest of the line and resembled a “mule shoe,” giving the salient its name. About 5,000 Federals from Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac (with Grant in overall command) tried taking this position on the 10th but failed. Grant therefore planned to attack with 15,000 men on the 12th.

Lee had pulled 22 guns out of the Mule Shoe because he thought Grant would fall back eastward. But when word spread that Grant would be attacking that point again, Lee hurriedly ordered the guns returned. As another fight seemed imminent, a Confederate chaplain recalled:

“Nothing was said by our officers, but there was a nameless something in the air which told each man that a crisis was at hand. Orders were given in low tones. The dim, shadowy outlines of the different commands as they took their positions under the sombre shades of the pines, gave a weird effect to the scene.”

The Confederate line consisted of Major General Richard H. Anderson’s First Corps holding Laurel Hill on the left (west), Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps holding the Mule Shoe in the center, and Major General Jubal Early’s Third Corps holding the eastern face of the Mule Shoe on a north-south line on the right. The line generally resembled an “L.”

In preparation for the attack, the bulk of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps was shifted from the Federal right (west) to the center, facing the Mule Shoe. To Hancock’s right was Major General Horatio G. Wright’s VI Corps, and Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps now held the right (west) flank. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside’s IX Corps held the Federal left, on a north-south line facing west.

Map of action on May 12 | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Grant ordered Hancock to attack at 4 a.m., but darkness and rain caused a 30-minute delay. When the Federals emerged from their defenses, they charged against the apex of the Mule Shoe salient and penetrated the Confederate line. At the salient’s eastern tip, Federals from Brigadier General Francis C. Barlow’s division overran Brigadier General George Steuart’s brigade and captured some 3,000 men, including both Steuart and his division commander, Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson. The Federals also captured most of the famed Stonewall Division and split the Confederate army in two.

Battle of Spotsylvania | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Burnside’s Federals attacked the eastern face of the salient, which aided Hancock’s efforts but resulted in no breakthroughs. Early’s Confederates held firm in this sector until around 2 p.m., when both Grant and Meade ordered Burnside to attack. The ensuing assault was repelled, and Burnside fell back when a Confederate brigade threatened his flank.

To the northwest, Hancock’s attack soon spread around the Mule Shoe’s apex and onto its western face. His Federals had broken through, but they had no plan for what to do next. Moreover, the troops had been massed in such a compact formation that the individual commands became disorganized.

Brigadier General John B. Gordon quickly directed Confederates to plug the gaps in the line and drive the Federals out. Lee arrived on the scene and prepared to advance with one of the Confederate units himself. Gordon insisted that Lee go back to safety, and the men shouted, “Lee to the rear!” Lee complied, and the Confederates soon reclaimed the eastern face of the Mule Shoe. Meanwhile, Major General Robert E. Rodes’s Confederate division worked to shore up the western face.

Around 6:30 a.m., Grant ordered Wright and Warren to attack. Wright’s Federals struck the Mule Shoe’s western face where it rounded to the apex. The heaviest fighting of the day occurred in this sector, which became known as the “Bloody Angle.” Brigadier General Abner M. Perrin, who commanded a brigade in Early’s corps, was killed after announcing, “I shall come out of this fight a live major general or a dead brigadier.”

Warren’s Federals attacked Laurel Hill around 8:15 a.m. The men had failed to take the hill several times since the 8th, and few had any confidence that it could be taken today. Consequently, the attack was not in full force, and after 30 minutes, Warren informed Meade that he could not advance any further “at present.” Enraged, Meade ordered Warren to attack “at once at all hazards with your whole force, if necessary.”

Warren passed the order to his division commanders, adding, “Do it. Don’t mind the consequences.” The corps attacked but was repelled once again, this time by just one Confederate division under Major General Charles W. Field. Not only had Warren failed to break the line, but his attacks were so weak that Lee did not need to reinforce that part of his line.

Meanwhile, Confederates in the Mule Shoe kept up the hard fighting in the rain while their comrades hurried to build a new defensive line at the salient’s base. Some of the Confederate gunpowder was too wet to ignite, forcing them to use their bayonets and hand-to-hand combat. This marked some of the most terrible fighting of the war. A Federal officer recalled:

“It was chiefly a savage hand to hand fight across the breastworks. Rank after rank was riddled by shot and shell and bayonet-thrusts, and finally sank, a mass of mutilated corpses; then fresh troops rushed madly forward to replace the dead, and so the murderous work went on. Guns were run up close to the parapet, and double charges of canister played their part in the bloody work. The fence-rails and logs in the breastworks were shattered into splinters, and trees over a foot and a half in diameter were cut completely in two by the incessant musketry fire.”

A Federal from VI Corps wrote, “The flags of both armies waved at the same moment over the same breastworks, while beneath them Federal and Confederate endeavored to drive home the bayonet through the interstices of the logs.” A tree 22 inches in diameter was sawed in half by bullets. Everything in the path of the opposing armies was laid to waste, as (unlike most battles) both sides refused to yield.

According to a Federal officer, “I never expect to be fully believed when I tell what I saw of the horrors of Spotsylvania, because I should be loath to believe it myself were the case reversed.” Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter of Grant’s staff recalled:

“Our own killed were scattered over a large space near the ‘angle,’ while in front of the captured breastworks the enemy’s dead, vastly more numerous than our own, were piled upon each other in some places four layers deep, exhibiting every ghastly phase of mutilation. Below the mass of fast-decaying corpses, the convulsive twitching of limbs and the writhing of bodies showed that there were wounded men still alive and struggling to extricate themselves from the horrid entombment. Every relief possible was afforded, but in too many cases it came too late.”

Fighting continued through the night, as Robert Park of the 12th Alabama wrote:

“It was a night of unrest, of misery, of horror. The standing men would occasionally hear a comrade utter an exclamation as a stray bullet from the enemy pierced some part of his body and placed him hors du combat. And it was well that the men were kept standing, as I saw many of them walking by the right flank and then by the left flank, and in profound sleep, wholly unconscious of what they were doing.”

By 4 a.m. on the 13th, the new defenses were completed, and the Confederates in the Mule Shoe fell back to take positions behind them. This ended 24 hours of non-stop combat. A new era of warfare had begun, in which defenders entrenched themselves behind fieldworks and attackers charged in much more compact, powerful lines to create gaps in the enemy line. This type of fighting would not only dominate the rest of this campaign, but it would serve as the model for how future wars would be fought.

Since May 10, Grant had lost 10,920 killed, wounded, or missing. He wired Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck on the night of the 12th, “The enemy are obstinate and seem to have found the last ditch.” The next morning, the Federals advanced and found nothing but dead and wounded men in the Mule Shoe. Burial details were dispatched to inter the corpses.

At Federal headquarters, members of Grant’s staff blamed Meade for yesterday’s failure to break through the Confederate line, but Grant rejected calls to remove him as army commander. He wrote Meade, “I do not desire a battle brought on with the enemy in their position of yesterday, but want to press as close to them as possible to determine their position and strength. We must get by the right flank of the enemy for the next fight.”

The Federals began shifting their massive line, as the men of V and VI corps were to move from the right (west) and take new positions on the left (southeast). Grant would try turning Lee’s right flank once more.

On the Confederate side, Lee had lost about 6,000 men in three days, or a tenth of his army. He needed reinforcements, specifically Major General Robert F. Hoke’s troops defending Richmond. Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “If Genl Hoke with fresh troops can be spared from Richmond it would be of great assistance. We are outnumbered and constant labor is impairing the efficiency of the men.”

Since combat operations began on May 5, Lee’s Confederates had consistently repelled the full force of the Army of the Potomac. However, this threatened to become a war of attrition, which the Confederates could not win.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 475; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 168-70; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 456-57, 460; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 406; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 436-37; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7070-94; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 99, 105, 124-25; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 238; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 499-500; 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. 729-31; Schultz, Fred L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 575; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 290-91; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 516-17, 551, 709