Tag Archives: John C. Breckinridge

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

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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

The Shenandoah Valley: Sigel Ousted

May 19, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates began leaving the Shenandoah Valley, and Major General Franz Sigel was replaced as Federal commander in the region.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, congratulated Breckinridge for his resounding victory over Sigel’s Federals at the Battle of New Market: “I offer you the thanks of this army for the victory over General Sigel. Press him down the Valley, and if practicable follow him to Maryland.”

Lee and the Confederate high command hoped the Federals would repeat their two-year pattern of abandoning the Valley after a defeat. Lee therefore sent a second message to Breckinridge: “If you can follow Sigel into Maryland, you will do more good than by joining us. (But) if you cannot, and your command is not otherwise needed in the Valley or in your department, I desire you to prepare to join me.”

With Sigel’s Federals retreating northward down the Valley, Breckinridge told Lee that he preferred to bring 2,500 men to Lee’s command in eastern Virginia rather than chase Sigel to Maryland. Lee answered, “Proceed with infantry to Hanover Junction by railroad. Cavalry, if available, can march.”

Breckinridge’s Confederates began heading east on the 19th. That same day, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, gladly accepted Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck’s suggestion to replace Sigel as head of the Federal Department of West Virginia. Grant had never been impressed with Sigel’s abilities, and his embarrassing defeat at New Market reinforced this assessment.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General David Hunter replaced Sigel. When Hunter reached department headquarters near Strasburg, he sent Sigel north to command the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. Hunter was expected to move from Staunton to Lynchburg, wrecking the important Virginia Central Railroad. The Federals would be “living off the country” during the march, destroying anything useful to the Confederacy and driving Confederate forces out of the region. The pattern of regrouping for months before resuming the offensive in the Valley would be broken.

Meanwhile, the Federal force that was supposed to have reinforced Sigel, led by Brigadier General George Crook, reached Meadow Bluff after retreating 50 miles into West Virginia. The men had been tasked with wrecking the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, but Crook had ordered a withdrawal after receiving an incorrect report that Grant had been defeated at the Wilderness. Crook’s Federals were exhausted and low on supplies, but when Hunter took command, he ordered them to “move immediately on Staunton.”

Hunter introduced a brutal new policy to Valley residents after Confederate guerrillas shot up a Federal wagon train near Newtown: he sent a cavalry unit to burn down the house from where the shots came. The Federals declared that if these attacks continued, “the commanding general will cause to be burned every rebel house within five miles of the place at which the firing occurs.”

Prior to this order, both sides had a tacit understanding that the rights and property of civilians would be respected. But Hunter asserted that Confederate guerrillas were outlaws, and if they could not be caught, then those who aided and abetted them would suffer. This policy of retaliatory arson earned Hunter the nickname “Black Dave.”

Hunter’s newly renamed Army of the Shenandoah, about 8,500 strong, left its camps at Strasburg and Cedar Creek on the 26th, moving south up the Valley turnpike. Hunter’s orders from Halleck were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond the possibility of repair for weeks; then, either return to your original base or join Grant, via Gordonsville.”

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones was assigned to command the new Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia now that Breckinridge and his men had gone east. Jones took over Breckinridge’s old Department of Western Virginia, as well as eastern Tennessee. He had about 8,500 infantry and cavalry, and his main responsibilities were to protect Staunton’s warehouses and the crucial Virginia Central.

As Hunter moved south, Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General John D. Imboden felled trees to impede his advance. From New Market, Imboden reported that Hunter was heading for Strasburg, adding, “His cavalry outnumbers ours two to one, his infantry four to one, his artillery four to one. There is no point this side of Mount Crawford where I can successfully resist him.”

The Federals advanced through Woodstock, where, according to Hunter’s chief of staff, Colonel David H. Strother, Hunter was “evidently seeking an apology to burn something” by searching the town jail. Hunter found no prisoners but still planned to burn the town hotel until his aides talked him out of it. On the 30th, Hunter’s Federals returned to New Market and properly interred their dead comrades whom Confederates had only partially buried.

Farther west, Crook’s Federals began moving out of their camps on the Greenbrier River in the Alleghenies. Crook was to move east and join forces with Hunter, giving them a combined force of about 20,000 men. These Federal movements concerned Lee, who directed Jones to “get all the available forces you can and move at once to Imboden’s assistance to defend the Shenandoah Valley.” Action in the Valley would escalate as the enemy forces approached each other in June.

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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. 409, 414; 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 5203-13, 5280-301, 5705-15, 6350-60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 442-45; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24, 39, 41-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 506-07, 509; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 527-28, 584, 817

The Battle of New Market

May 15, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge led a makeshift Confederate army in trying to stop the Federal drive up Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Federal Gen Franz Sigel | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General Franz Sigel, commanding the Federal Army of West Virginia, had been assigned to deprive the Confederate armies of the vital foodstuffs produced in the fertile Valley. By this time, his troops had moved south to Woodstock, but his force had shrunk from 10,000 to 6,500 men because he had to detach units to guard his lengthening supply line.

Breckinridge’s Confederates left Staunton on the morning of the 13th to join forces with Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s cavalry at New Market. Imboden dispersed Federal cavalry commands at Front Royal and New Market, inflicting about 150 casualties and putting 800 enemy troopers out of action in the two combined engagements.

Sigel continued south from Woodstock on the 14th to Mount Jackson, a farming center at the terminus of the Manassas Gap Railroad, about seven miles north of New Market. Imboden’s Confederates skirmished with the Federal vanguard and exchanged artillery fire before heavy rain stopped the fighting for the night.

During this time, Imboden’s cavalry joined Breckinridge’s main force, which now numbered close to 5,000 men. Breckinridge established a defensive line at New Market with Brigadier General Gabriel C. Wharton’s brigade on the left (west) and Brigadier General John C. Echols’s brigade on the right (east). Echols was out sick, leaving his brigade under Colonel George S. Patton (grandfather of World War II General George S. Patton).

Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp’s 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute, aged 15 to 17, were held in reserve. Shipp recalled that Breckinridge “informed me that he did not wish to put the Cadets in if he could avoid it, but that should occasion require it, he would use them very freely.”

By the morning of the 15th, Sigel had two infantry brigades about a mile north of New Market. Their line was between the North Fork of the Shenandoah River to their right (west) and the Valley Turnpike to their left (east). More infantry arrived and took positions to the left of the two brigades, on either side of the turnpike. Federals in the center held Manor’s Hill.

Breckinridge used his artillery and Imboden’s cavalry to try coaxing the Federals into attacking his strong line. When that failed, he advanced his force to meet the Federals north of town. The Confederates marched through New Market amidst cheering residents and drove back the Federal pickets.

Breckinridge halted just north of town, still hopeful that the Federals would assail him first. A heavy artillery duel ensued, but the Federal infantry would not attack. Breckinridge therefore ordered his own assault. The Confederates advanced in early afternoon and pushed the Federals off Manor’s Hill.

Sigel arrived on the scene and formed a new line on Bushong’s Hill, with Federal infantry on the right and center, and Major General Julius Stahel’s cavalry on the left. Breckinridge halted his men to dress their line before resuming the advance at 2 p.m. As the Confederates closed in, 17 Federal guns opened on them. The Confederate center wavered and broke.

At 2:45, Breckinridge decided to fill this gap with the VMI cadets, saying, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive me for the order.” The cadets, called “katydids” by the veterans, charged into the center as Shipp was wounded and replaced by Captain Henry A. Wise. Shipp later wrote:

“Great gaps were made through the ranks, but the cadet, true to this discipline, would close in to the center to fill the interval and push steadily forward. The alignment of the battalion under this terrible fire, which strewed the ground with killed and wounded for more than a mile on open ground, would have been creditable even on a field day.”

During this time, Sigel directed Stahel’s cavalry to counterattack the Confederate right, but the Federals were repelled by heavy artillery fire. Federals tried another counterattack on the Confederate left, but confusion among the commanders made this ineffective, and it was repulsed as well.

The Confederate advance resumed around 3 p.m. Several VMI cadets lost their shoes while marching across a muddy field, giving it the nickname the “Field of Lost Shoes.” The Federal infantry started breaking under the pressure, prompting the artillerists to withdraw their guns. The Confederates captured five cannon, one of which was taken by the VMI troops.

The “Field of Lost Shoes” | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Wise remembered, “Our esprit de corps made us vie with the magnificent veterans to our right and left. They yelled, we yelled with them. The onrush was irresistible.” As the Federals retreated, Breckinridge halted his men until the supply wagons could catch up.

Sigel withdrew northward and formed a rear guard on Rude’s Hill. When he received reports that the Federals were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, he ordered a retreat to Mount Jackson, across the Shenandoah River. The Federals crossed and burned the bridge behind them, preventing Breckinridge from pursuing. When Sigel arrived at Mount Jackson, he ordered another retreat to Strasburg, 20 miles north.

The Federals sustained 831 casualties (93 killed, 482 wounded, and 256 captured or missing), while the Confederates lost 577 (42 killed, 522 wounded, and 13 missing). The VMI contingent lost 10 killed (including a descendant of Thomas Jefferson) and 47 wounded, or 23 percent of their total. They played a relatively small role in the battle, but their brave performance made them heroes in the South.

After this resounding Confederate victory, Breckinridge’s men cheered “such as had not been heard in the Valley since Stonewall Jackson had led them” in 1862. Breckinridge praised his troops, “particularly the cadets, who, though mere youths, had fought with the steadiness of veterans.” This ensured that the Valley would continue feeding the Confederate armies in Virginia and elsewhere.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, initially suggested that Breckinridge pursue Sigel all the way down the Valley and invade Maryland, but the rivers were too swollen and supply lines too long for this to be feasible. Instead, Lee urged Breckinridge to hurry his command east to Hanover Junction, where he could reinforce Lee’s army.

Sigel’s army had been routed but not destroyed. This embarrassing setback enraged the Federal high command; Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck told Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, “Sigel is in full retreat on Strasburg. He will do nothing but run; never did anything else.” Grant had little faith in Sigel as a commander before this battle, and now he was convinced that Sigel must be replaced.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 444; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 88; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20404; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17-18; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 408; 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 5232-52, 5270-90; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 438-39; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 28-30, 32, 34-39; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 260-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 501-02; 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. 723-24; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 527-28, 707-08

Showdown Looms in the Shenandoah Valley

May 13, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates moved out to confront Major General Franz Sigel’s Federal Army of West Virginia advancing south “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Federal Gen Franz Sigel | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

In late April, the third of four planned Federal offensives in Virginia began when Sigel led 10,000 Federals out of Martinsburg. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, had tasked Sigel with clearing Confederates out of the Valley, which provided vast amounts of foodstuffs. Destroying this fertile region could starve the Confederate armies into submission.

On the 2nd, the fourth offensive began when Brigadier General George Crook moved 6,000 Federals southeast out of the Kanawha Valley toward Dublin Station in West Virginia. Crook’s mission was to advance to the New River Bridge and wreck the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. A detachment of 2,000 cavalry under Brigadier General William W. Averell was to ride from Logan’s Court House to destroy the salt and lead mines at Saltville and Wytheville.

Crook and Averell were then to move to Staunton, where they would join forces with Sigel and destroy the Virginia Central Railroad connecting the Shenandoah Valley to Richmond. Grant had little faith in Sigel as a commander and therefore expected Crook to be the campaign’s driving force. Sigel’s main task was to guard the Valley until Crook’s force arrived; as Grant said, “If Sigel can’t skin, himself, he can hold a leg whilst someone else skins.”

Sigel arrived at Winchester on the 2nd, covering just 22 miles in three days. News of his advance reached General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia about to do battle in the Wilderness. Lee notified Breckinridge, heading the Confederate Trans-Allegheny Department: “Grant’s whole army is moving on our right… (Sigel) will probably cross at Chester Gap and move upon our left.”

With Lee’s army stretched to its limit, Breckinridge was assigned to stop Sigel. Breckinridge immediately began moving two infantry brigades toward Staunton. This left West Virginia open for Crook and Averell to strike the vital railroad, saltworks, and lead mines there.

Meanwhile, Sigel remained at Winchester for a week due to incorrect reports that Confederates were poised to threaten his flanks. He finally left town on the 9th, with his troops wearing new uniforms and marching with confident precision. According to a soldier, “They had heard reports that a great battle had been fought between Grant’s and Lee’s armies, and that our army had the advantage.”

Major General John C. Breckinridge | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Breckinridge had just 4,000 Confederates to oppose Sigel in two infantry brigades, a cavalry command under Brigadier General John B. Imboden, and various other independent units. On the 10th, he called upon the cadets at Virginia Military Institute in Lexington to march 32 miles to join him at Staunton. After commemorating the first anniversary of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s death (Jackson had taught at VMI), the cadets headed out, led by Lieutenant Colonel Scott Shipp.

Farther west, Crook’s Federals arrived at the 400-foot New River Bridge on the 10th. A small Confederate unit traded artillery fire with the Federals before withdrawing, and Crook’s men burned the bridge. Crook was now within eight miles of Dublin, where he was to wait for Averell’s cavalry and then head east to join Sigel at Staunton.

However, Crook issued orders for his men to return to Meadow Bluff, near Lewisburg, where they could resupply. Crook later justified this dubious withdrawal by claiming, “I saw dispatches from Richmond stating that General Grant had been repulsed and was retreating, which determined me to move to Lewisburg as rapidly as possible.”

Farther southwest, Averell found the way to Wytheville blocked by Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s Confederate horsemen at Crockett’s Grove. The Confederates made several charges, inflicting 114 casualties and pushing the Federals eastward. Averell withdrew to Dublin, where he learned that Crook would not be meeting up with him.

When Breckinridge reported to Richmond that the New River Bridge had been destroyed, Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg urged him to turn southwest and confront Crook. Bragg left the final decision to Lee, who simply told Breckinridge, “You must judge.” Fortunately for Breckinridge, Crook and Averell made the decision easy by falling back; Breckinridge could now focus solely on Sigel.

As Sigel’s Federals continued southward, they were harassed by Imboden’s cavalry in their front and Colonel John S. Mosby’s Confederate partisans on their flanks and rear. On the 11th, Imboden attacked one of Sigel’s cavalry regiments stationed at Front Royal and captured 464 men. But neither Confederate cavalry nor foul weather stopped Sigel’s methodical advance up the Valley. The Federals reached Woodstock the next day.

At Woodstock, Sigel learned that Breckinridge was organizing an army to oppose him. Having moved deep into enemy territory, with partisans harassing him and no word yet on what happened to Crook, Sigel informed his superiors:

“My forces are insufficient for offensive operations in the country where the enemy is continually on my flank and rear. My intention, therefore, is not to advance farther than this place with my main force, but have sent out strong parties in every direction. Skirmishing is going on every day. If Breckinridge should advance against us I will resist him at some convenient position.”

Breckinridge arrived at Staunton that same day to take “general direction of affairs” past the Blue Ridge. Rather than wait for Sigel to attack him there, Breckinridge advanced his makeshift force to join with Imboden’s horsemen, which fell back from Mount Jackson to New Market, 40 miles away. The VMI cadets arrived to join Breckinridge just as his men began moving out of Staunton on the morning of the 13th.

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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 20385; 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 5148-77, 5193-203, 5212-22, 5232-242; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 427, 436-37; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 16, 20, 23, 25, 28-29; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 146, 527-28

Bragg Leaves the Army of Tennessee

December 2, 1863 – General Braxton Bragg turned the Confederate Army of Tennessee over to Lieutenant General William Hardee, and President Jefferson Davis began looking for a permanent army commander.

General Braxton Bragg | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

On the last day of November, Bragg’s request to be removed from command had been granted. Bragg notified his superiors that he would relinquish command on December 2 at Dalton, Georgia. In the meantime, he submitted “a plain, unvarnished report of the operations at Chattanooga, resulting in my shameful discomfiture” via special messenger. The report included a personal letter to his friend, President Davis, who had supported him:

“The disaster admits of no palliation, and is justly disparaging to me as a commander. I trust, however, you may find upon full investigation that the fault is not entirely mine… I fear we both erred in the conclusion for me to retain command here after the clamor raised against me…”

Bragg charged that Major General John C. Breckinridge had been drunk throughout the three days of battle at Chattanooga and called him “totally unfit for any duty” during the withdrawal. Bragg alleged that Major General Benjamin F. Cheatham was “equally dangerous.” This further demonstrated that Bragg’s demise was at least partly due to his inability to accept responsibility for mistakes and to instead blame his subordinates.

In an emotional ceremony, Bragg passed command to Hardee on the 2nd. Although most of the officers and men in the army despised Bragg and celebrated his departure, he issued a farewell address to them: “The announcement of this separation is made with unfeigned regret. The associations of more than two years, which bind together a commander and his trusted troops, cannot be severed without deep emotion.”

Confederate Lieut Gen William Hardee | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Hardee, who had no desire for army command, only agreed to replace Bragg temporarily. He stated that while he appreciated “this expression of (Davis’s) confidence… feeling my inability to serve the country successfully in this new sphere of duty, I respectfully decline the command if designed to be permanent.” Hardee announced to his new army:

“The overwhelming numbers of the enemy forced us back from Missionary Ridge, but the army is still intact and in good heart… Only the weak and timid need to be cheered by constant success. Let the past take care of itself; we can and must secure the future.”

Before leaving, Bragg wrote a second letter to Davis, in which he still called himself “General, Commanding” at “Headquarters Army of Tennessee.” Bragg rhetorically asked, “What, then, shall be our policy?” He then boldly offered unsolicited military advice:

“The enemy has concentrated all his available means in front of this army, and by sheer force of numbers has triumphed over our gallant little band… Let us concentrate all our available men, unite them with this gallant little army, still full of zeal and burning to redeem its lost character and prestige, and with our greatest and best leader at the head, yourself, if practicable, march the whole upon the enemy and crush him in his power and glory…”

Bragg concluded, “I believe it practicable, and trust that I may be allowed to participate in the struggle which may restore the character, the prestige, and the country we have just lost.” Bragg then left the army and headed to Richmond to await further orders. Despite Bragg’s questionable record as military commander, Davis would soon find a new job for him in the administration.

Meanwhile, since Hardee made it clear that he would only lead the Army of Tennessee on an interim basis, Davis had to hurry to find a permanent commander. The list of generals to choose from was very short, even if he did not rule out those he personally disliked. The day after Hardee took over, Davis wrote General Robert E. Lee in northern Virginia. He explained the situation and asked, “Could you consistently go to Dalton, as heretofore explained?”

Davis had asked Lee to head the Army of Tennessee in September, and Lee demurred. Now Lee did so again, not wanting to leave his Army of Northern Virginia. He answered, “I can if desired, but of the expediency of the measure you can judge better than I can. Unless it is intended that I should take permanent command, I can see no good that will result, even if in that event any could be accomplished. I also fear that I would not receive cordial co-operation.”

Lee explained that if he left, he would have to turn his army over to Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, who was “too feeble to undergo the fatigue and labor incident to the position.” Lee then warned Davis that the Federals sought to invade Georgia “and get possession of our depots of provisions and important manufactories.” He proposed giving General P.G.T. Beauregard (currently heading the Charleston defenses) command of the army and reinforcing it with troops from Mississippi, Mobile, and Charleston. Lee added:

“I think that every effort should be made to concentrate as large a force as possible, under the best commander, to insure the discomfiture of (Ulysses S.) Grant’s army. To do this and gain the great advantage that would accrue from it, the safety of points practically less important than those endangered by his army must be hazarded. Upon the defence of the country threatened by General Grant depends the safety of the points now held by us on the Atlantic, and they are in as great danger from his successful advance as by the attacks to which they are at present directly subjected.”

However, Davis loathed Beauregard and would not consider giving him command of the Army of Tennessee. Davis also would not consider the highest-ranking general in the Confederacy, Adjutant General Samuel Cooper, because he had performed administrative duties throughout the war and was too old for field command. This left just one viable option, and to Davis’s dismay, it was someone who had been hostile toward him almost since the war began.

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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. 349-50; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 868-69, 878; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 380; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6544-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 441-43

The Battle of Chattanooga: Missionary Ridge

November 25, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s Federals finally broke the siege of Chattanooga and nearly broke General Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee in the process.

By this time, the three Federal armies had made progress in pushing the Confederates away from Chattanooga:

  • Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee held a spur across a ravine from Tunnel Hill, north of Chattanooga.
  • Major General George H. Thomas’s Army of the Cumberland held Orchard Knob in the center.
  • Major General Joseph Hooker’s forces from the Army of the Potomac held Lookout Mountain southwest of Chattanooga.

Thomas’s Federals, unaware of Hooker’s victory the night before, cheered when they saw the U.S. flag waving atop Lookout Mountain the next morning. Grant’s plan for this day’s action included:

  • Sherman seizing Tunnel Hill and driving the Confederates off Missionary Ridge.
  • Thomas advancing after Sherman seized his objective.
  • Hooker advancing toward Rossville Gap to cut off the Confederate line of retreat.

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

Sherman’s 16,000 Federals advanced at dawn and arrived in front of Tunnel Hill around 11 a.m. Bragg’s best division, Major General Patrick R. Cleburne’s 4,000 men, defended the hill, with support from divisions under Major General Carter L. Stevenson and Brigadier General States Rights Gist. The small, narrow hill allowed for an easy defense against a superior attack force. Cleburne held the Federals off for four hours and earned the nickname “Stonewall Jackson of the West” for this action.

To the southwest, Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederate corps held Hooker off as the Federals had to stop and repair the bridge leading to Rossville Gap. When the bridge was finally repaired around 3 p.m., the Federals advanced in force and Breckinridge slowly fell back in the face of superior numbers. Grant had expected Sherman to destroy the Confederate right, but instead Hooker was threatening to crumble the Confederate left.

Meanwhile, Sherman signaled Grant’s headquarters several times asking him to send Thomas into action. With Sherman faltering and Hooker slowing down, Grant finally assented. In Thomas’s front, Bragg’s Confederates manned three lines of rifle pits ascending Missionary Ridge. Grant, who had little faith in Thomas’s Federals based on their combat history, ordered them to simply advance from Orchard Knob and capture the first line at the foot of the ridge.

Some 23,000 Federals advanced across the open plain along a two-mile front. The Confederates fired one volley and fell back to the second line. As the Federals entered the first line, they were in danger of being decimated by rifle and artillery fire from the two lines above them. Without orders, the divisions of Major General Philip Sheridan and Brigadier General Thomas J. Wood led a general charge up the mountain. Grant, watching from headquarters, asked, “Thomas, who ordered those men up the ridge?” Thomas replied, “I don’t know, I did not.” Grant did not abort the unauthorized assault, hopeful for success.

The Federal charge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Confederates abandoned the second line, with many hit by friendly fire from their comrades in the line above. The Federals then continued their charge up to the third line, with some chanting, “Chickamauga! Chickamauga!” Confederate artillerists could not depress their guns low enough to fire on the attackers; some desperately lit fuses in shells and rolled them down the mountain. The Federals swept through the third line and raced to the top of Missionary Ridge, nearly capturing both Breckinridge and Bragg in the process.

Gen P.R. Cleburne | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

While Cleburne’s men celebrated repelling Sherman, Lieutenant General William Hardee, Cleburne’s superior, informed him that the center had collapsed, and his Confederates were about to be isolated. Cleburne quickly formed a rear guard to prevent the Confederate retreat from becoming a rout. Bragg’s army retreated down the reverse slope of Missionary Ridge, and the Federal pursuit, led by Sheridan’s division, ended at nightfall. Hooker soon joined the rest of the Federals on Missionary Ridge.

Three days of fighting ended in a resounding Federal victory that ended the siege of Chattanooga. During that time, the Federals sustained 5,824 casualties (753 killed, 4,722 wounded and 349 missing). Grant telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“Although the battle lasted from nearly dawn until dark this evening I believe I am not premature in announcing a complete victory over Bragg. Lookout mountain-top, all the rifle pits in Chattanooga Valley, and Missionary Ridge entire, have been carried, and are now held by us. I have no idea of finding Bragg here tomorrow.”

The Confederates lost 6,667 men (361 killed, 2,160 wounded and 4,146 missing, mostly captured). They also lost 41 guns. Bragg regretfully reported, “A panic which I had never before witnessed seemed to have seized upon officers and men, and each seemed to be struggling for his personal safety regardless of his duty or his character.”

The Confederates crossed Chickamauga Creek, with Cleburne reporting:

“By 9 p.m., everything was across, except the dead and a few stragglers linger here and there under the shadow of the trees for the purpose of being captured: faint-hearted patriots succumbing to the hardships of the war and the imagined hopelessness of the hour.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 138-42; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 436-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 80-81; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 344-45; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 857-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 376-77; Korn, Jerry, The Fight for Chattanooga: Chickamauga to Missionary Ridge (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 117-55; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 33-35, 65-67, 182; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 437-38; 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. 677-80; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 133, 445-47, 498-99