Tag Archives: George Pickett

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son; and then a sister who had come to embrace, for the last time, the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore, by his treason to his country. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached Him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

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Pickett’s New Bern Campaign

February 2, 1864 – Confederates captured one of the largest Federal ships on the North Carolina coast, but their main mission was more difficult to accomplish.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederates in North Carolina, sought to take back New Bern, one of the largest cities in the state, because the Federal warehouses there could feed Confederates in both North Carolina and Virginia through the winter. Pickett planned to advance on New Bern with three infantry columns, supported by Commander John T. Wood’s naval flotilla on the Neuse River.

As the month began, Pickett had moved within striking distance of the town, with the Federals unaware of his approach. Pickett traveled with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s division as it came upon Batchelder’s Creek from the northwest. Federal advance units destroyed the bridges over the creek before retreating. Hoke’s men made makeshift bridges out of nearby logs and drove the Federals back into town. The Confederates halted on the night of the 1st, as Pickett awaited word from his other two columns and Wood’s navy.

Pickett’s second column, led by Brigadier General Seth M. Barton, advanced from the southwest with orders to destroy railroad tracks and telegraph lines along the way. The march was slowed by rain and mud, and locals warned Barton that the Federal defenses outside New Bern were “of the most formidable character, deemed by the enemy impregnable.” As Barton advanced, he came upon an unexpected line of Federal forts south of the Trent River. He reported:

“I was therefore unprepared to encounter obstacles so serious, and was forced to the conviction that they were insurmountable by any means at my disposal. Had it even been practicable to carry the fortifications on the south side of Trent, the possession of them would have been useless for the accomplishment of our object.”

Meanwhile, Pickett’s third column under Colonel James Dearing stopped at Fort Anderson, northeast of New Bern, where Dearing judged the fort too strong to take. Wood’s naval cutters began moving down the Neuse as planned, but two of Pickett’s three columns had not reached their objective in this operation, which relied on the precise execution of all its elements to succeed.

Pickett continued waiting to either receive word from his other column commanders or hear gunfire to the south. Hoke later wrote, “We remained in front of New Berne all day Tuesday (the 2nd) waiting Barton’s move, when, much to my disappointment, a dispatch was received from him stating that it was impossible for him to cross the creek.”

Federals soon discovered the Confederate presence, ruining the element of surprise. Pickett urged Barton to join forces with Hoke, but Barton stated he would have to try finding another place to cross the river. Pickett reported, “Thus, the earliest possible moment at which he could have joined me would have been the evening of the 3rd instant. I could not have attacked before the 4th instant.”

Infuriated, Pickett ordered a general withdrawal. He blamed Barton for the failure, but he also blamed General Robert E. Lee, who had devised the three-pronged plan. Pickett wrote, “Had I have had the whole force in hand, I have but little doubt that we could have gone in easily taking the place by surprise.”

But as it stood, this was a Confederate failure. The Petersburg (Virginia) Register reported simply that “the place was stronger than we anticipated.” Brigadier General Innis N. Palmer, commanding the Federals at New Bern, called his losses during Pickett’s operation “trifling.”

Cmdr J.T. Wood | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Meanwhile on the Neuse, Wood’s flotilla continued downriver as planned. Using muffled oars, the boats quietly came upon the U.S.S. Underwriter, a four-gun sidewheel steamer and the largest Federal ship in the area. The Federals discovered the approaching boats at 2:30 a.m. on the 2nd, when they were within less than 300 feet of the Underwriter. The alarms were sounded, but the Federals could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers.

The Confederates boarded the vessel and engaged in vicious hand-to-hand combat. Acting Master Jacob Westervelt, commanding the Underwriter, was killed in the fighting. The Confederates captured the vessel, but they could not get her steam up, and the Federal shore batteries began firing on her. Wood ordered the ship burned to prevent recapture.

Wood relayed the valor of the Confederate marines to Colonel Lloyd J. Beall, Confederate Marine Corps commandant. Lieutenant George W. Gift, an officer in the Confederate flotilla, declared, “I am all admiration for Wood. He is modesty personified, conceives boldly and executes with skill and courage.” Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory called this action a “brilliant exploit,” and Wood later received the thanks of the Confederate Congress. But the Federals still held New Bern.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91-94; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 365-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393-94; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 459-60; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 477, 524

Confederates Target New Bern

January 20, 1864 – Confederate commanders looked to take back a key point on the North Carolina coast to better feed their armies.

Federal forces had captured New Bern, one of North Carolina’s largest cities, in early 1862. Since then, the Confederates made sporadic attempts to take it back, but by this time, it had become an important objective because the Federal warehouses there could feed the Confederate armies through the winter.

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

New Bern was especially important to General Robert E. Lee, whose Army of Northern Virginia was finding it increasingly difficult to sustain itself in ravaged, war-torn Virginia. If Confederate forces could seize the town, they could use the Wilmington & Weldon Railroad to transport the foodstuffs and supplies north into Virginia.

Now that the Federal and Confederate armies in northern Virginia had gone into winter quarters, Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The time is at hand when, if an attempt can be made to capture the enemy’s forces at New Berne, it should be done. I can now spare troops for the purpose, which will not be the case as spring approaches.”

Lee acknowledged that the Federal garrison at New Bern had been strongly fortified, but it “has been so long unmolested, and experiences such a feeling of security, that it is represented as careless.” So were the Federal gunboats patrolling the nearby waters.

Lee stated, “A bold party could descend the Neuse (River) in boats at night, capture the gunboats, and drive the enemy by their aid from the works on that side of the river, while a force should attack them in front.” To do this, and to secure the “large amount of provisions and other supplies” there, “a bold naval officer” and experienced men would be needed. Lee asked, “Can they be had?”

Davis responded two days later, “Your suggestion is approved, but who can and will execute it?” Davis stated that a naval fleet could not be assembled any time soon. He also suggested that Lee should lead the New Bern operation himself:

“You could give it form, which would insure success… without your personal attention, I fear such failures as have elsewhere been suffered… It would be well to send the brigade, and if circumstances permit, you had better go down; otherwise, I will go myself, though it could only be for a very few days, Congress being in session.”

Lee waited over two weeks to reply, “until the time arrived for the execution of the attempt on New Berne.” Without acknowledging Davis’s offer to personally lead the troops in the attack, Lee stated he would take command, “but I consider my presence here (in northern Virginia) always necessary, especially now, when there is such a struggle to keep the army fed and clothed.” Lee also reiterated the need for a gunboat fleet, writing, “With their aid I think success would be certain.”

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Leadership ultimately devolved upon Major General George Pickett, who had taken command of the Department of North Carolina last fall. Pickett’s force would consist of 13,000 infantrymen, 900 cavalry troopers, and 17 guns. Lee worked with Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke, Pickett’s second-in-command, to develop the attack plan. It began with 14 naval cutters under Commander John T. Wood clearing the Federal gunboats off the Neuse River, thus “driving the enemy from their guns” on shore. Pickett would then launch a three-pronged advance:

  • An infantry force, Brigadier General Seth M. Barton’s 600 cavalry, and 14 guns would attack New Bern from the southwest, below the Trent River.
  • An infantry force, Colonel James Dearing’s 300 cavalry, and three guns would advance from the northeast and capture Fort Anderson, across the Neuse from New Bern.
  • Hoke’s division, joined by Pickett, would advance on New Bern from the northwest.

In addition to these joint army-navy operations, Brigadier General William H.C. Whiting, commanding Confederates at Wilmington, would move 35 miles southeast to attack the Federal garrison at Morehead City. Lee wrote Pickett, “Everything will depend upon the secrecy, expedition, and boldness of your movements.” Lee recommended troop placements and authorized Pickett to abort the attack if necessary. He then stated, “If successful, everything in New Berne should be sent back to a place of security.”

From there, Lee urged Pickett to oversee “the enemy driven from Washington, Plymouth, &c., and much subsistence for the army obtained.” Offering more specifics, Lee instructed, “If you have to use the telegraph, merely say, ‘The day is’–name the day of the month; he (Whiting) will comprehend. Commit nothing to the telegraph that may disclose your purpose.”

Lee directed Hoke to personally deliver the instructions to Pickett and “explain to him fully the plan of operations.” As Hoke moved his Confederates south into North Carolina, he was to coordinate efforts with draft officials “to get conscripts and recruits.”

The mobilization began on the 30th, and Pickett’s forces began arriving outside New Bern the next day. The operation continued into February.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 91; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 393; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 524

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Meade Tries Cutting Lee Off

July 19, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia hurried to get through the Blue Ridge, and Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac hurried to cut them off.

On the 15th, President Abraham Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” for August 6. The day was to be spent expressing gratitude to God for “victories on land and on the sea so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored…”

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

That same day, Lee rested his Confederates in the Bunker Hill area, north of Winchester and about 20 miles from the Potomac River. He directed his men to thresh nearby wheat, ground it up, and ration it among themselves along with the beef captured from Pennsylvania.

Lee wrote his wife that the army “has accomplished all that could be reasonably expected. It ought not to have been expected to perform impossibilities, or to have fulfilled the anticipations of the thoughtless and unreasonable.” He expressed hope that the official campaign reports would “protect the reputation of every officer,” and he would not blame subordinates for the defeat at Gettysburg. Lee instead blamed himself for expecting too much from the men.

Federal cavalry clashed with some of Lee’s troops moving through Halltown and Shepherdstown, but the rest of the Federal army could not cross the Potomac because it had risen once more. Meade directed three corps to march to Harpers Ferry, and the other four corps to go six miles downstream to Berlin. The men built bridges and finally began crossing the river on the 16th.

As Lee continued reorganizing his army, he wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The men are in good health and spirits, but want shoes and clothing badly… As soon as these necessary articles are obtained, we shall be prepared to resume operations.” Lee shared reports that Federals were about to cross the river at Harpers Ferry, and he told Davis, “Should he follow us in this direction, I shall lead him up the Valley and endeavor to attack him as far from his base as possible.”

The Federals completed their three-day crossing of the Potomac on Sunday the 19th. They quickly advanced south up Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley toward the Confederates past the Blue Ridge. Lee directed Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to cross the Shenandoah River and seize Ashby’s Gap, “should nothing occur to arrest your progress.” Lee hoped to secure as many gaps in the Blue Ridge as needed to move east and protect Richmond.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meade hoped to block Lee’s eastward movement by seizing the gaps first. He directed a cavalry division under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick to occupy Ashby’s Gap, and two other divisions under Brigadier Generals John Buford and David Gregg to cover Manassas and Gregory’s gaps. Meade also dispatched XII Corps to hold Snicker’s Gap between Manassas and Gregory’s.

The Federals reached Ashby’s Gap before Longstreet, who resolved to move instead to Front Royal, farther south. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps followed Longstreet on the 21st, and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps followed Hill two days later. Meade moved south cautiously, guarding against a possible Confederate thrust northward into his rear that could cut his communication and supply lines to Washington.

Buford sent a brigade under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to cover Manassas Gap, which arrived to secure it before the Confederates. Merritt’s Federals clashed with the 17th Virginia, Longstreet’s leading regiment, on the 21st. Merritt reported:

“The regiment is about 600 strong, which of itself in this country is enough to hold my entire brigade in check, as I cannot use my artillery to advantage. The wounds inflicted on the men of my brigade are very severe, and the arms captured from the enemy are the Springfield rifle. I will feel them again to-morrow.”

Buford’s other brigade, led by Colonel William Gamble, rode to cover Chester Gap farther south but discovered that Confederates already took it. This indicated to Meade that the main part of Lee’s army was no longer threatening his rear at Winchester, but rather trying to reach the Rappahannock River. The Confederates tried pushing through Chester Gap on the 22nd, while Gamble’s troopers held positions a mile and a half east. Gamble reported:

“When the head of the enemy’s column came within easy range, we opened fire on it with artillery and the carbines of the dismounted men so effectually that his column, with his wagon train, halted and fell back out of our range, his advance guard and skirmishers being still engaged with ours, and continued firing, we holding our position, and preventing the head of Longstreet’s corps from moving forward from the Gap from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m.”

Longstreet sent Major General George Pickett’s division south to outflank Gamble, who wrote that he was compelled to withdraw “when the enemy brought five regiments of infantry around out of sight in the woods, and, approaching my left flank, drove in our skirmishers.” This opened the gap, enabling the Confederates to pour through and cross the Blue Ridge on their way east.

At 2 p.m. the next day, Gamble reported that “the rebel army, with strong flankers, is still passing on this road. There is no doubt that the rebel army is pushing toward Culpeper on both sides of the mountains as fast as it possibly can, and I hope our army will act accordingly.”

Sensitive to charges that he had not shown enough aggression after the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade ordered III Corps, now commanded by Major General William French (after Major General Daniel Sickles was wounded at Gettysburg), to attack the Confederates at Manassas Gap. Longstreet may have pushed through Chester Gap, but Meade hoped to trap Hill and Ewell before they could follow suit.

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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. 309-11; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 593-94, 627; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 333; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6316, 6327; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 386-89

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Three

July 3, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a massive, desperate charge to destroy the Federal Army of the Potomac once and for all.

The Confederates had bested the Federals in two days of fighting south of Gettysburg. However, the Federals had fallen back behind their defenses, and their lines remained intact. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, strengthened his defenses even more in preparation for another Confederate attack expected on this day.

During the night, Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps returned to Culp’s Hill on the extreme Federal right after being transferred to support the left the previous day. The Confederates had blown a gap in the Federal line there which, if penetrated, could threaten the Federal lines of supply and possible retreat. Slocum directed his men to build defenses and plug the gap.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The third day of fighting began when Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps attacked Culp’s Hill at 4 a.m. Waves of Confederates surged against the Federals for over six hours before finally falling back, unable to break the strong Federal lines. The fighting ended around 10:30 a.m., and an eerie quiet fell upon the battlefield.

As Meade guessed, Lee planned to shift his focus to the center of the Federal line at Cemetery Ridge. Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, again urged Lee to move around Meade’s left flank and interpose himself between the Federals and Washington. Lee insisted that Federal morale was low, Confederate strength was at its peak, and one more assault would break the Federal army.

Under Lee’s plan, a heavy artillery bombardment would soften the Federal defenses. Then three divisions (consisting of 50 regiments in 11 brigades) totaling 15,000 men would march across the open ground from Seminary Ridge and attack. The divisions included those of:

  • Major General Isaac Trimble, replacing the mortally wounded Major General William D. Pender, of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps
  • Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, replacing the wounded Major General Henry Heth, of Hill’s corps
  • Major General George Pickett of Longstreet’s corps

Confederate Major General James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Longstreet would be the overall commander, even though only one of the divisions belonged to him. Two of the divisions would be led by men who had never held divisional commands before. One division, Pettigrew’s, had already been decimated in the first day of fighting.

Longstreet said, “General Lee, there never was a body of 15,000 men who could make that attack successfully.” But Lee would not relent. He had initially hoped that Longstreet’s attack would be coordinated with Ewell’s on Culp’s Hill, but Ewell had already been defeated. Now Lee hoped that Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry could attack the Federal rear to divert attention from Longstreet’s impending attack.

Meanwhile, Federals strengthened their defenses along Cemetery Ridge, sensing that Lee would attack that sector of the line after attacking both flanks. The defenders consisted mostly of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, led by the divisions of Major Generals John Gibbon and Alexander Hays. They could see the Confederates unlimbering their cannon a mile west.

Longstreet worked with Colonel E. Porter Alexander, his chief artillerist, to ensure that the upcoming bombardment, according to Alexander, “was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try and cripple him–to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.” Longstreet then rode off to assemble the infantry.

Alexander received a message from Longstreet around 11 a.m.: “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge.” Alexander, knowing he could not accurately determine what effect his cannon would have on hidden troops, replied, “If there is any alternative to this attack it should be carefully considered before opening our fire.”

Around noon, Stuart’s cavalry set out to attack the Federal rear and divert attention from Cemetery Ridge, when about 4,500 Federal horsemen under Brigadier General David Gregg rode up to oppose them. A vicious fight ensued, featuring charges and countercharges with rifles and sabers among mounted and dismounted troopers.

Federals guns came up in support, and the Confederates were driven off. They lost 181 men, while the Federals lost 254. Stuart’s planned assault on the Federal rear was aborted, making this a Federal victory. A Federal brigade under Brigadier General George A. Custer particularly distinguished itself.

At 1:07 p.m., Confederates opened 140 guns on Cemetery Ridge. This was intended to weaken the defenses before the infantry assault. However, most of the guns were aimed too high, so the shells screamed past the Federals and crashed harmlessly beyond the ridge. The Federals slowly responded with 100 guns of their own, and this soon became the largest artillery duel of the war. The booming could be heard all the way to Pittsburgh, nearly 200 miles west.

The Federal guns eventually stopped firing, leading the Confederates to believe they had run out of ammunition. But the Federals were simply trying to lure the Confederates into the open. Alexander sent a message to Pickett: “For God’s sake come quick… or I can’t support you.” Pickett rode to Longstreet and asked, “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet, sensing the futility of this attack, turned away. Pickett said, “I am going to move forward, sir.”

Longstreet met with Alexander, who explained that he could not support the infantry because his ammunition train was too far in the rear. Longstreet said, “Go and halt Pickett right where he is and replenish your ammunition.” But Alexander said that by the time it was replenished, the Federal lines would be strengthened to the point that neither artillery nor infantry could break them. Longstreet said, “I don’t want to make this attack. I believe it will fail. I would not make it even now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.” Alexander said nothing.

The Confederate infantry advance began at 3 p.m. The men marched with parade ground precision as their flags waved in the breeze. General Frank Haskell of the Federal II Corps recalled:

“More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the army of 18,000 men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on the move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.”

Federal artillerists waited until the troops came within range and then opened fire with deadly accuracy. As men fell, the others closed ranks and continued forward. They moved into the open ground, with Pickett’s Virginians leading, toward a copse of trees in the middle of the Federal line. The troops stopped at the Emmitsburg road to dress their line, having already sustained heavy losses.

Confederates charge Cemetery Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As the Confederates entered rifle range, Federal infantry along Cemetery Ridge began pouring their fire into them. Men fell in heaps, but the Confederates still pushed forward. Just a small fraction of the attacking force reached the ridge. A soldier recalled:

“Men fire into each other’s faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet-thrusts, sabre-strokes, pistol-shots;… men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping up blood, falling; legless, armless, headless. There are ghastly heaps of dead men…”

Those Confederates who reached the ridge were enfiladed on both sides by overwhelming Federal numbers. Nevertheless, a group of 150 men led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead of Pickett’s division penetrated the Federal line at what became known as the Angle. This was the closest the Confederate army ever came to military victory on northern soil.

Armistead’s men were met by a Pennsylvania brigade of II Corps led by Brigadier General Alexander S. Webb, who surged forward to seal the gap and force the surviving Confederates to either surrender or retreat. Armistead was killed, and Webb was also wounded; he later earned the Medal of Honor for his action.

The Federals ultimately held firm, as artillery and reinforcements massed to repel the Confederate attackers. Federal troops who remembered their horrible defeat at Fredericksburg in December shouted, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” to the withdrawing Confederates. The climactic battle of the Eastern Theater ended in Confederate defeat.

Only about half the Confederate attackers returned to their lines on Seminary Ridge. As they came, Lee rode among them saying, “It’s all my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” The troops implored Lee to give them another chance, but Lee would not. He issued orders to prepare defenses against a potential Federal counterattack.

Ewell’s corps was pulled out of Gettysburg. By day’s end, Lee told a subordinate, “We must now return to Virginia.” He planned to retreat as soon as the wagon trains and ambulances filled with the wounded could be put in motion.

In the horrific three-day struggle, the Federals sustained 23,049 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing). The Confederates lost 20,451 (2,592 killed, 12,709 wounded, and 5,150 missing). The Confederate losses were especially crippling because the South lacked the manpower to replace them. Pickett’s division alone lost more than half its men, including every regimental commander, two brigadier generals, and six colonels. The 43,500 total casualties made this the costliest battle ever fought in American history.

The performance of Lee’s commanders contributed to the defeat. Ewell had been reluctant to attack, Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s strategy, Hill was sick and thus not fully involved, and Stuart had deprived Lee of vital intelligence before the battle. Lee himself bore some responsibility for not properly coordinating his attacks, for issuing vague orders, and for rejecting Longstreet’s advice to move around the Federal left.

Some commanders urged Meade to use his 20,000 reserves to counterattack and finish Lee off. But Meade, having been army commander for just six days, three of which were spent fighting the largest battle of the war, was satisfied to have repelled Lee’s attacks for now. Unaware that his men had just destroyed about a third of Lee’s army, leaving him crippled in enemy territory, Meade said, “We have done well enough.”

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37, 342; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-32, 138, 144, 146; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 300; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320, 322-23; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6246; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 182; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-123, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 377-78; 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. 661-63; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 173; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 306-07, 584, 811

The Siege of Suffolk

April 11, 1863 – Confederate forces under Lieutenant General James Longstreet attacked the Federal garrison at Suffolk, Virginia, south of the James River.

Confederate Major General James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Longstreet had been assigned to command a new department consisting of part of his First Corps pulled from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet’s mission was to guard the region south of Richmond into North Carolina, gather foodstuffs for Lee’s army since war-torn northern Virginia lacked sufficient forage, and eliminate the Federal threat at Suffolk.

Longstreet’s force included 20,000 men in two divisions led by Major Generals George Pickett and John Bell Hood. Since the main objective was to supply Lee, Longstreet merely planned to demonstrate against Suffolk to distract the Federals from his main purpose. A division of IX Corps consisting of about 25,000 Federals under Major General John J. Peck garrisoned Suffolk, which was part of Major General John A. Dix’s Federal military department. Suffolk was heavily fortified.

Confederates and Federals traded shots from across the Nansemond River, as Longstreet extended his right flank southward to Dismal Swamp. Fighting intensified over the next few days as Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, dispatched a fleet of gunboats under Lieutenant William B. Cushing to support Peck. Lee informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “If Suffolk falls, Norfolk follows.”

The gunboats U.S.S. Mount Washington, Stepping Stones, and Commodore Barney came up the crooked, narrow Nansemond and traded fire with the Confederate guns near the Norfleet house, at the confluence of a western branch of the Nansemond and the main river. The vessels were converted ferryboats and tugs, and were not meant for such heavy combat. The Confederates inflicted heavy losses as a result, including grounding the Mount Washington until the Stepping Stones rescued her.

However, the gunboats responded with accurate fire of their own, joined by Federal land batteries and troops behind their fortifications. The artillery duel continued the next day, when the Federal gunboats and artillerists silenced several Confederate batteries at the Norfleet house and along the Nansemond. The duel ended and a standoff began, as Longstreet initiated a siege of Suffolk.

Silencing the Confederate batteries opened a path up the Nansemond to the Confederate garrison at Fort Huger on Hill’s Point. Longstreet directed Major General Samuel G. French to station five cannon and three infantry companies in the empty fort to oppose the approaching Federal gunboats.

On the morning of the 19th, the Stepping Stones suddenly appeared about 400 yards from the fort, commanded by Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson. The ship’s guns sent the defenders running for cover, and then 270 soldiers of the 8th Connecticut and the 89th New York landed, along with four boat howitzers. The Federals charged into the fort before the Confederates could react, capturing 137 men and all five guns, some of which had been taken from Harpers Ferry last September.

The Federals initially strengthened the fort but then evacuated two days later, allowing the Confederates to take it back. However, the fort no longer posed a threat to the Federal ships on the Nansemond. Longstreet called the defeat at Fort Huger “a serious disaster. The enemy succeeded in making a complete surprise.”

Two aides under Colonel Evander M. Law accused men of the 55th North Carolina, assigned to defend the fort, of cowardice. Colonel John K. Connally, the regiment’s commander, furiously denied the charge, and a double duel took place to clear the men’s name. Shots were fired, but nobody was hurt.

These minor operations kept the Federals occupied while Longstreet achieved two of his main objectives–protecting Richmond and foraging for the Army of Northern Virginia. Peck also achieved his main goal, which was to prevent the Confederates from capturing Suffolk. Longstreet continued his tentative siege on the town while his men continued foraging in the surrounding countryside.

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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. 274; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 256-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 279-82; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 337; 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. 638-39; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 197; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275, 534

The “Mud March”

January 20, 1863 – Major General Ambrose E. Burnside prepared to launch another offensive intended to restore his reputation and revitalize the demoralized Army of the Potomac.

Maj Gen A.E. Burnside | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Burnside made final preparations for his Federals to move out of Falmouth on the 19th. A recent report stated that General Robert E. Lee had sent Confederate troops to North Carolina and Tennessee, thus weakening his Army of Northern Virginia at Fredericksburg. The weather had been unseasonably warm in Virginia, making the roads dry and the river fordable. If Burnside was to atone for the disaster at Fredericksburg, now was the time.

While his superiors at Washington were cautiously optimistic, Burnside’s subordinates believed this operation would fail miserably. An officer wrote, “The general demoralization that had come upon us made two or three months of rest a necessity,” and he “came to the conclusion that Burnside was fast losing his mind.”

Major General William B. Franklin, one of Burnside’s Grand Division commanders, loudly opposed the plan, along with his subordinate, General William “Baldy” Smith. Franklin and Smith argued that Lee’s army had not been weakened enough to be defeated, especially by the dispirited men in this army. An artillery colonel claimed that Franklin “has talked so much and so loudly to this effect that he has completely demoralized his whole command.”

The plan called for the two Grand Divisions under Franklin and Major General Joseph Hooker to march north and cross the Rappahannock at the fords above Fredericksburg. Meanwhile, Major General Edwin V. Sumner’s Grand Division would feint toward Fredericksburg as a diversion, and Major General Franz Sigel’s reserve Grand Division would take the place of Franklin and Hooker on the original line. After crossing the river, Franklin and Hooker would move south against the Confederates’ left flank and force them into an open fight.

As the Federal troops prepared to move on the morning of the 20th, their officers read them a general order from Burnside:

“The commanding general announces to the Army of the Potomac that they are about to meet the enemy once more. The movements of our troops in N.C. and the Southwest had drawn off and divided the Rebel forces on the Rappahannock. The auspicious moment seems to have arrived to strike a great and mortal blow to the rebellion, and to gain that decisive victory which is due to the country… a fame the most glorious awaits.”

Burnside urged “the firm and united action of officers and men, and, under the providence of God, the Army of the Potomac will have taken a great step toward restoring peace to the country and the Government to its rightful authority.”

Around 11 a.m., the Grand Divisions of Hooker and Franklin formed into columns and headed out of Falmouth as bands played “Yankee Doodle.” They marched up the north bank of the Rappahannock, arriving near Banks Ford that night. They would use pontoons to cross the Rappahannock at points above and below the ford the next day.

Meanwhile, the Confederates had conducted a two-day inspection and reported to Lee that Burnside would likely move upriver and try attacking their left. Lee dispatched a division from Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps under Major General George Pickett to occupy positions around Salem Church. These overlooked the fords and enabled the Confederates to oppose a crossing.

Rain began falling late that afternoon, which fell heavier as the night went on. A strong, icy wind blew in, and the previously beautiful weather quickly gave way to a harsh winter storm. A Pennsylvania soldier wrote that “it rained as if the world was coming to an end.” Burnside later said, “From that moment we felt that the winter campaign had ended.” The rain turned to snow farther north, blanketing Washington.

The rain continued into the next morning, and the roads were turning into quagmires. In some places, soldiers sank knee-deep in mud. Artillery wagons sank to their axles, as teams of men and horses struggled to pull them out. Many horses and mules died of exhaustion as the pontoon train fell two miles behind the army. The troops could advance no further until the pontoons could be brought to the front.

The Federal “mud march” | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Pickett’s Confederates could see the Federals struggling across the river. They jeered their counterparts and held up signs reading, “This Way to Richmond,” and “Yanks, If You Can’t Place Your Pontoons Yourself, We Will Send Help.” The day ended with the Federal army hopelessly tangled and neutralized in the rain and muck. An officer wrote:

“An indescribable chaos of pontoons, vehicles, and artillery encumbered all the roads. Supply wagons upset by the roadside, guns stalled in the mud, ammunition trains ruined by the war, and hundreds of horses and mules buried in the liquid mud. The army, in fact, was embargoed; it was no longer a question of how to go forward–it was a question of how to get back.”

The troops bivouacked in the brutal cold that night, as Burnside relentlessly ordered the advance to resume the next morning. The incessant rain had made everything so wet that the troops could not even start fires to cook their dinners. The next day, Burnside tried lifting morale by issuing whiskey, but this only led to arguing and brawling among the frustrated, exhausted men.

Burnside finally saw he could advance no further in these conditions and, around noon on the 22nd, he ordered the army to return to its original camps at Falmouth. But Burnside issued the order from Aquia Creek, 15 miles away, where he expected to meet with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck. The order to fall back did not reach the Grand Division commanders until that night, so the troops had to bivouac in the cold, wet mud one more night before turning back.

The return march proved just as exhausting as the advance, as troops struggled to pull themselves and their animals and equipment out of the deepening muck. The “mud march” ended in miserable failure, dropping the already low Federal morale even lower.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 123-25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Cullen, Joseph P., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 97-98; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 256-57; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 8691-8701; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 128-30; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 255-57; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5241; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 93, 95-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 312-14; 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. 583-84; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 184