Tag Archives: George Sykes

Northern Virginia: Federals Approach Mine Run

November 28, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade tried launching one more offensive before winter, leading his Federal Army of the Potomac against General Robert E. Lee’s formidable Confederate defenses along Mine Run. Continue reading

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Northern Virginia: Meade Looks to Advance

November 21, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade received intelligence that his Federal Army of the Potomac now held a major numerical advantage over General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Meade therefore looked to launch another offensive.

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

Following the Bristoe campaign in October, Meade had settled his army into camps between the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, presumably until the spring. However, this changed when a detailed report, partly derived from information provided by Confederate deserters, stated that Lee had less than 40,000 effectives in his army, while Meade had 84,274.

Lee actually had 48,586 effectives, but Meade still vastly outnumbered him, and his Federals had been emboldened by their recent, albeit minor, victories at Bristoe and Rappahannock stations. Moreover, the report indicated that Lee’s two corps were spread out across 35 miles and unable to guard the lower fords on the Rapidan. Meade therefore planned to hurry his five infantry corps down the Rapidan, move down the Orange Turnpike, and overwhelm Lee’s right and rear before the remaining Confederates came up in support.

While Meade planned, Lee hosted President Jefferson Davis for a four-day military conference at Lee’s headquarters. Lee once more stressed the importance of having shoes for his barefooted men, as well as adequate food, clothing, and shelter for the upcoming winter. On the night of the 24th, Lee received word that Meade had requisitioned large amounts of rations for his troops, indicating he would soon be in motion again.

Lee alerted his outposts. Guessing that Meade would cross the Rapidan and try advancing through either the Wilderness or Spotsylvania toward the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, Lee prepared to move his army to block the Federals. A cavalry clash near Ely’s Ford on the 25th seemed to confirm Lee’s guess.

Meade had planned to move out on the 23rd, but rains turned the roads to mud. He announced to his corps commanders, “On account of the unfavorable appearances of the morning,” the advance would not begin until the 24th. But rain caused postponements for another two days, during which time Federal cavalry reported that the major thoroughfares were still passable. The troopers also noted that Confederates were not guarding Ely’s Ford on the Rapidan.

On the 25th, Meade issued orders for the movement to begin the next morning, Thanksgiving Day. The Federals were to make a wide swing around the Confederate right to land on the enemy flank and rear. Meade explained that speed and stealth were of the utmost importance, therefore each man would carry 10 days’ rations and leave their supply trains behind.

Major General William French’s III Corps was to cross the Rapidan at Jacob’s Ford, opposite Mine Run, with Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps following. Major General Gouverneur Warren’s II Corps was to cross farther downstream at Germanna Ford. Major General George Sykes’s V Corps would cross even farther down at Culpeper Mine, followed by Major General John Newton’s I Corps. The five corps would then unite, with French in the lead, and move west to hit the Confederate right with overwhelming force.

The Federals mobilized at 6 a.m., a half-hour before sunrise, on the 26th. A heavy fog hid their movement from the Confederates as they moved down their assigned paths to the Rapidan fords. However, French’s corps started late and experienced traffic delays. Upon reaching Jacob’s Ford, engineers did not bring enough pontoons to span the river. Consequently, French did not cross until near sundown. By day’s end, French, Warren, and Sykes had crossed the Rapidan, but the element of speed was lost, as Meade had covered only half the distance he expected to cover that day.

The element of stealth was also lost when Confederate signalmen atop Clark’s Mountain, along with cavalry, spotted the movement. Lee had expected the Federals to attack the Richmond & Fredericksburg Railroad, but their movement against his right worked even more to his advantage. He held strong positions, and the Federal delays gave him time to shift more troops to that sector of his line.

Lee pulled elements of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps east to bolster the Second Corps under Major General Jubal Early (temporarily replacing the ailing Lieutenant General Richard Ewell) on the right. Lee directed Early to cross Mine Run and move east to face Meade’s advance.

Early’s three divisions moved along three parallel roads leading to Robertson’s Tavern, with Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s men the farthest north (the Confederate left), Major General Robert Rodes in the center, and Brigadier General Harry Hays’s men moving along the Orange Turnpike to the south. Hill’s corps moved about a mile south on parallel roads.

Meade directed the Federals to begin moving at 7 a.m., with French holding the right (unknowingly moving directly toward Johnson), Warren holding the center on the Orange Turnpike (unknowingly moving toward Hays), and Sykes holding the left (unknowingly moving toward Hill). Sedgwick and Newton were in reserve.

French and Warren were supposed to converge at Robertson’s Tavern, but French took a wrong fork in the road and had to countermarch for several hours. Warren’s corps reached the tavern unsupported, where they were confronted by Hays’s Confederates around Locust Grove. French informed Meade that he was waiting for Warren, but Meade’s chief of staff, Major General Andrew Humphreys, responded:

“What are you waiting for? No orders have been sent you to wait for General Warren anywhere upon your Route… He is waiting for you. The commanding general directs that you move forward as rapidly as possible to Robertson’s Tavern, where your corps is wanted.”

French finally came up on Warren’s right and met resistance from Johnson’s Confederate division near Payne’s Farm. French deployed his lead division under Brigadier General Joseph B. Carr to face Johnson as both he and Hays began linking with Rodes in the middle.

The Confederates repelled two Federal charges and then counterattacked. As Johnson reported, “The resistance of the enemy was stubborn, but he was steadily driven back for a considerable distance through the woods and pursued across an open field.” The Confederates soon advanced into heavy woods and became disorganized. They were then hit by heavy Federal canister fire. Johnson ultimately withdrew and repelled more Federal attacks before nightfall ended the fighting.

The Confederates lost 545 men, including Brigadier Generals George Steuart and John M. Jones (both wounded). On their right, Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry barely held Sykes at bay. As Stuart’s line appeared to be breaking and the Federals were about to turn the Confederate flank, Hill’s corps arrived to link with Early and drive the Federals back. Lee then pulled his main force back to defenses on a ridge along the west bank of Mine Run.

Federal losses were unrecorded, but this engagement ruined the element of surprise that Meade so desperately needed. Meade blamed French for his delays crossing the Rapidan on the 26th and taking the wrong road on this day. With Lee entrenched behind Mine Run, Meade now could only attack (and most likely fail) or retreat.

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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 19153; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 346; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 873-74; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 378; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6488, 6499-511; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 497; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28-31; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 438-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 563-64

Engagement at Bristoe Station

October 14, 1863 – Parts of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac clashed as Lee tried flanking Meade in northern Virginia.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Early on the 14th, Major General Jeb Stuart and two of his Confederate cavalry brigades remained hidden near Auburn, as they were cut off from Lee’s army by Federals. Stuart, expecting the Confederate infantry to rescue him, began firing his seven cannon but received no support as the Federal troops advanced and nearly overwhelmed him. The Confederate horsemen fought their way out, but they had to take a long detour to rejoin Lee’s army.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps of Lee’s army marched to the sound of Stuart’s guns and approached Federal Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps as it tried crossing Cedar Run. Warren reported, “To halt was to await annihilation, and to move as prescribed carried me along routes in a valley commanded by the heights on each side.” To Warren’s good fortune, Ewell’s attack was delayed, enabling him to withdraw the Federals to safety along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

The rest of Meade’s army continued pulling back north toward Centreville and Manassas Junction, while Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederate Third Corps moved east. Hill’s advance had been delayed, giving Meade time to avoid being flanked. As the Confederates approached Broad Run near Bristoe Station, Hill saw Federal Major General George Sykes’s V Corps falling back to the north and east. Thinking this was the Federal rear guard, Hill deployed two brigades from Major General Henry Heth’s division to attack. They did not reconnoiter the area beforehand.

As the Confederates advanced, Warren’s II Corps approached their right flank from the south, following Sykes on the northward retreat. Hill’s men traded shots with Sykes’s Federals, and then turned south to assault Warren, who placed his men behind the railroad embankment near Bristoe Station. Two Confederate brigades were ordered to charge Warren’s defenses.

The Confederate charge was easily repulsed, as the brigades were no match for an entire Federal corps. Both brigade commanders–Generals William W. Kirkland and John R. Cooke–were badly wounded, and both brigades were decimated (Kirkland lost 602 men and Cooke lost 700). A second Confederate attack, this time with Major General Richard H. Anderson’s division, was also repelled.

This 40-minute engagement cost the Confederates nearly 1,900 men (1,400 killed or wounded and 450 captured), while the Federals lost just 580. The Army of Northern Virginia had not sustained such a sharp defeat since the Battle of Mechanicsville during the Seven Days Battles of June 1862. Warren kept withdrawing north following this clash, avoiding Ewell advancing toward his left flank to reinforce Hill.

This campaign of maneuver had been a Confederate success, but it ended with a sharp Federal repulse that gave Meade time to prepare defenses around Centreville. Lee’s opportunity to move around Meade’s right and rear was lost. When Hill informed Lee of the Bristoe Station engagement, Lee said, “Well, well, General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”

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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 19145; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 333; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p.  793; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 360; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6440-52; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 422

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Two

July 2, 1863 – The Federal and Confederate armies gathered south of Gettysburg, where General Robert E. Lee launched ferocious attacks on both Federal flanks.

The Confederates had won the previous day’s fight, having pushed the Federals southeast through Gettysburg. But the Federals were now firmly entrenched on high ground anchored by Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived on Cemetery Hill just after midnight, where he set up headquarters in the house of the graveyard’s caretaker.

Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, spoke for most of his fellow corps commanders when he told Meade, “I am confident we can hold this position.” Meade replied, “I am glad to hear you say so, gentlemen. I have already ordered the other corps to concentrate here–and it is too late to change.”

By morning, Meade had adeptly employed his engineering skills by positioning his forces on a strong defensive line. It started at Culp’s Hill on the right (northeast) flank and curled around Cemetery Hill to the west before turning south down Cemetery Ridge. The line ended with the left (south) flank anchored at the base of two hills called the Round Tops.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Around 1 a.m., Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, put his troopers in motion to join the main army at Gettysburg. It had been one week since Stuart set off on his fateful ride around the Federal army that deprived Lee of vital intelligence. The men and horses were exhausted, having conducted five night marches during the raid.

Stuart and his cavalry finally arrived that afternoon, too late to provide any useful information to Lee regarding the Federal army. Lee greeted his tardy cavalry chief, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” Stuart proudly presented Lee with the captured Federal wagon train, but Lee called it an “impediment to me now.” He ordered Stuart to block Meade’s possible line of retreat to the east.

Lee’s army concentrated around Seminary Ridge, about a mile and a half west of the Federals. The Confederates held exterior lines that stretched north through Gettysburg and then southeast to oppose the Federals on Culp’s and Cemetery hills south of town. Lee had been victorious the previous day, but he had not won a complete victory. He hoped to do so on this day.

Approximate army positions on the 2nd day | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, inspected the enemy positions that morning. He again urged Lee to move around the Federal left, get between Meade and Washington, and take up strong positions to repel a Federal attack in a manner like the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg last December. Lee refused, insisting, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Longstreet replied, “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”

Lee would not relent. He directed two of Longstreet’s divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, as well as Major General Richard Anderson’s fresh division from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, to assault the enemy left. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would resume attacking the enemy right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills.

Longstreet’s men did not start arriving until late morning, and Longstreet spent most of the day getting them into attack positions. The Confederates opened an artillery barrage at 4 p.m. to precede their infantry assault. Hood and McLaws did not get into position until after 4.

Maj Gen Daniel Sickles | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Daniel Sickles’s III Corps held the Federal left on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles believed his position was weak and so he, contrary to Meade’s orders, moved his men a mile forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg road. The Federals occupied Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and a mass of boulders at the foot of a hill called Devil’s Den. This created a vulnerable salient in the Federal line. When Hood’s Confederates advanced, they immediately exploited the error.

Hood swept around Sickles’s left, knocking the Federals out of Devil’s Den and past Plum Run, which separated Devil’s Den from the Round Tops. Hood’s scouts reported that Big Round Top was unoccupied, and Little Round Top had just signalmen on its peak. Hood directed his Confederates to sidle around Sickles and focus on taking Little Round Top.

Longstreet was informed of the lack of Federal troops on the Round Tops and was urged to go to Lee and again argue his point for moving around Meade’s left. But Lee had already rejected that twice, insisting that Longstreet attack the Federals in his front. Longstreet would not risk a third rejection.

When Meade learned of Sickles’s unauthorized advance, he furiously demanded that Sickles return to his original position. But the Confederate attack began before Sickles could move. He asked Meade if he should still try pulling back, but Meade replied, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”

Meade quickly ordered V Corps, his former command now led by Major General George Sykes, to reinforce Sickles. Meade also directed his chief engineer, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, to reconnoiter the Round Tops. Warren scaled Little Round Top, a rocky, wooded eminence rising 650 feet. He saw Confederates massing below and quickly realized they could place artillery on this hill and enfilade the Federal army all the way north to Cemetery Hill.

Warren hurriedly called on the nearest Federal units to come and defend Little Round Top. These consisted of a brigade led by Colonel Strong Vincent, the 140th New York, and an artillery battery from V Corps. They arrived and took up positions just minutes before the Confederates rushed up the hill.

The Federals held desperately against repeated enemy charges, as Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed’s brigade came up to reinforce Vincent’s right. Weed directed the placement of heavy guns that tore holes into the oncoming Confederates until he was killed in action; Vincent was also killed.

Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, holding the very end of the Federal line, launched a desperate bayonet charge after running out of ammunition, which shocked Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s Confederates and sent them running. Chamberlain, a college professor before the war, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.

The Confederates then shifted their focus to the north, intending to execute Lee’s plan to launch assaults en echelon. McLaws’s division attacked Sickles’s exposed salient around 5:30 p.m. Fighting surged back and forth as the Wheat Field changed hands six times before the Confederates finally made a breakthrough. However, the Federals held the enemy off with artillery until Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps came up to stabilize the left-center of the Federal line.

McLaws deployed Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade around 6:30 p.m., which swept through the Peach Orchard and captured a Federal battery. However, Barksdale fell mortally wounded, and a Federal counterattack virtually destroyed his brigade. The Confederates next tried breaking the Federal center to no avail. The 1st Minnesota under Colonel William Colvill was nearly annihilated in a futile counterattack.

During all this brutal fighting, Sickles was wounded in the leg and carried from the field. He inexplicably blamed Meade for the heavy losses his corps sustained, despite having advanced on his own initiative into the face of massed Confederates.

By day’s end, the Confederates had seized the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the base of the Round Tops. But Federal reinforcements prevented them from penetrating any further. The Federals still commanded the high ground, and their line remained unbroken. Warren received high praise for recognizing the threat to Little Round Top and rushing to stop it.

Casualties were extreme for the second straight day, with each side losing another 9,000. Barksdale was killed, Major General William D. Pender of Hill’s corps was mortally wounded, and Hood was seriously wounded. Over 500 Confederates lay dead in the Wheat Field alone. Sickles lost his leg, and the 1st Minnesota lost 215 of its 262 men, or a horrifying 82 percent. As President Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited news of the battle in the War Department’s telegraph office, Meade wired around 8 p.m.:

“The enemy attacked me about 4 p.m. this day, and, after one of the severest contests of the war, was repulsed at all points. I shall remain in my present position tomorrow, but am not prepared to say, until better advised of the condition of the army, whether my operations will be of an offensive or defensive character.”

Just after Meade relayed the message, Ewell finally launched his attack on the Federal right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. The Confederates had bombarded the positions since 6 p.m.; the Federal defenses had been weakened by both the artillery barrage and by pulling troops away to reinforce the Federal left.

Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates briefly seized Cemetery Hill, breaking XI Corps once more, before Federal reinforcements drove them back. Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’s failure to reconnoiter deprived Early of the support needed to hold onto his gains.

The Federals held firm on Culp’s Hill against Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division; the hill was initially defended by just one brigade under Brigadier General George S. Greene. A division of XII Corps led by Brigadier General Thomas H. Ruger eventually came up to bolster Culp’s.

That night, Meade held a council of war with at least 12 of his top commanders in his small farmhouse headquarters on the Taneytown road. Meade sought advice on whether he should stay put as he told Washington or withdraw after sustaining Ewell’s attack. The officers resolved to stay put but maintain a defensive posture.

As the meeting ended, Meade told Major General John Gibbon, commanding a division in II Corps, “If Lee attacks to-morrow, it will be in your front.” When Gibbon asked why, Meade said, “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again, it will be on our center.”

The Confederates once again could not penetrate the Federal defenses. Longstreet was later accused of moving too slowly, and Lee was criticized for not properly coordinating the attacks. Lee resolved to launch one more attack the next day. As Meade predicted, he would target the Federal center in one last effort to destroy “those people.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 129-33; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67, 70-71, 73, 78, 108, 119; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19001; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 299; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 460, 523-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320-21; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 688, 803; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-23, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 375-76; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 646-47; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 470; 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. 655-60; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-73, 177-78; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 216, 306, 308-09, 441-42, 565, 739, 786, 811, 818