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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Different Perspective on the Petersburg Campaign

A while back I wrote that the Petersburg Campaign was a Rodney Dangerfield, getting no respect.  Now I think I may have overstated the campaign's importance.  Yes, indeed, it was a war in itself with approximately 100,000 casualties.  Yes, it pitted against one another the premier general of each side. 

But it was not the war's decisive campaign.  That was the Atlanta Campaign, which decided the election of 1864 and consequently the war   The Petersburg Campaign contributed to the Atlanta Campaign as a holding action that prevented Lee and his army from intervening, directly or indirectly, in the Atlanta Campaign.

The historical parallel that comes to mind is the campaign in Italy between Fabius Maximus and Hannibal Barca after the battle of Cannae.  Fabius held Hannibal while Scipio skinned the Carthaginian empire like Grant held Lee while Sherman skinned the Confederacy.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Advance Praise for "The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry from John Brown's Hanging to Appomattox"

"One of a score or so of outstanding unit histories."
 -- Edwin C. Bearss, former Chief Historian, National Park Service.

Regimental histories are, for the most part, necessary resources for campaign histories but rarely worth reading beyond that. John Horn’s The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War is a decided exception to this rule. Charting the course of a single regiment from 1861 to the war’s end is a daunting challenge but Horn is up to the task. His handling of the numerous campaigns is solid, and he deftly fits his regiment into the mix, almost always adding vivid anecdotes to the overall narrative (many appearing for the first time) by skillfully employing an extensive selection of first-hand accounts drawn from published and unpublished sources. As an added plus, the maps are numerous and well-drawn. John Horn’s book is a model of its kind.

-- Noah Andre Trudeau, author, The Last Citadel: Petersburg, Virginia, June 1864-April 1865 and Lincoln’s Greatest Journey

     John Horn’s splendid history of the 12th Virginia will stand among the classics of the discipline.

     Long years of research and patient crafting allowed the author to deliver an account as detailed and precise, as honest and clear, as any regimental accounting we’ll ever see.  Following the men of Petersburg and its environs from the na├»ve enthusiasm of the war’s initial months through near-disaster amid the gore at Crampton’s Gap, and on through a series of tough stands in the Chancellorsville campaign to the blunt savagery of the war’s last year, this chronicle of one hard-used, heroic regiment is a true soldier’s book—and that is a great compliment.  John Horn takes us as close as words on a page can bring us to the soldier’s experience.  From merry snowball fights between entire brigades, to the final, bitter defense of their home city, the men of the 12th Virginia leap to life.

     Horn’s reliance on first-hand accounts reminds us of how casual death became—as well as how hungry those men in gray became as early as the winter of 1863, when at least a few acquaintances of the regiment found rat meat a tasty supplement to their rations.

    Simple pleasures and harsh punishments, battlefield confusion and clashes of character…informal truces on the picket line and the shock of finding your powder wet as the enemy approaches…so often, it’s the telling detail, the tidbit ignored by the proponents of grand history, that really bring those Civil War soldiers to life again.  And Horn is the master of such details.

--Ralph Peters, author, Cain at Gettysburg and The Damned of Petersburg

The culmination of years of study and research, John Horn’s definitive history of the Petersburg Regiment narrates the wartime adventures of the 12th Virginia Regiment with the skill of a master story-teller.  We meet the regiment’s members and experience with them the horrors of battle, the exhaustion of the march, and the tedium of camp life.  Grounded in primary source materials, told with engaging verve, and accompanied by an ample array of maps, this is Civil War history at its best. The Petersburg Regiment sets a new standard for regimental histories.

Gordon C. Rhea, author, On to Petersburg:  Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864

John Horn has written important books on the entire Siege of Petersburg and on some of its most crucial battles.  His latest book focuses on the “Petersburg Regiment,” the 12th Virginia Infantry.  This hard-fighting unit of Robert E. Lee’s army was heavily engaged from early 1862 to the Civil War’s final days.  Its significant service is compellingly narrated throughout these pages.  Complementing this narration are keen analyses of the 12th’s strengths – and shortcomings.  This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the humanity of the military experience.

Richard J. Sommers, author of Challenges of Command in the Civil War

The 12th Virginia had rarely distinguished itself early in the war, John Horn writes, but in his stirring regimental history, the Petersburg Regiment finally gets its (over)due.  Horn writes with humanity of a band of brothers who push through the hard work of war across Virginia only to spend the last unhappy months fighting on their own doorsteps to protect their home town.  Horn’s book is a model for the way regimental histories should be written: compelling, empathetic, and highly readable.

Chris Mackowski, editor, The Emerging Civil War Series

Monday, June 4, 2018

Strength of the 12th Virginia Infantry

Space limitations required cutting the following table because all of the figures are already in the text and footnoted there.

Table:  STRENGTH (Officers/Men)

                                                                                                                                                            Present &

Date                Battle              Effective                     For Duty                     Present                        Absent

6/16/61                                                                                                            863 (47/816)

5/18/62                                                                                                                                                1100

6/23/62                                                                                                            691                                936

7/1/62              200

8/30/62            220

9/17/62              26 (3/23)

2/1/63                                                                          318                              425

5/1/63              400

6/14/63                                                                                                            434 (31/403)

6/21/63                                                                                                            396 (31/365)

7/4/63                                      224 (22/202)

7/30/64            150 (10/140)

8/15/64                                    237 (12/225)                246 (14/232)                297 (16/283)                  636 (38/598)

8/19/64              94

9/28/64                                    242 (13/229)                262 (15/247)                308 (17/291)                  645 (34/611)

10/31/64                                  238 (13/225)                287 (16/271)                311 (19/292)                  693 (32/661)

11/28/64                                  298 (23/275)                298 (22/276)                321 (23/298)                  691 (35/656)

12/28/64                                  259 (18/241)                275 (19/256)                313 (22/293)                  677 (33/635)

2/28/65                                    222 (15/207)                236 (15/221)                279 (17/262)                  654 (30/624

4/2/65                                                                                                              295 (18/277)

4/9/65                                                                                                              197 (17/180)

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Glossary: The World of the 12th Virginia Infantry

Below is one of the items that wound up on the cutting room floor because of space considerations as I prepared the manuscript of "The Petersburg Regiment in the Civil War, A History of the 12th Virginia Infantry from John Brown's Hanging to Appomattox" for publication.  Last I heard it's due out next January.

GLOSSARY:  The World of the 12th Virginia Infantry

The Petersburg Regiment                                           The 12th Virginia Infantry

A Saratoga Trunk Regiment                                       The 12th Virginia Infantry

The Cockade City                                                       Petersburg

The Herrings (Second Company H)                           The Meherrin Grays

The Kid Glove Boys                                                   The Mahone-Weisiger Brigade

Lee’s Regulars                                                            The Mahone-Weisiger Brigade

The Turkeys                                                                The Florida Brigade (1863)

The Gophers                                                               The Florida Brigade (1865)

The Norfolk Division                                                  The Huger-Anderson-Mahone Division

Mahone Men                                                               The Huger-Anderson-Mahone Division

Mahone’s Beauties                                                     The Huger-Anderson-Mahone Division

(Old) Porte                                                                     General Mahone

Bomb-Proof                                                                Safe

The Old Rag                                                               The Regimental Flag

The Gridiron                                                               The Federal Flag

Raghouse                                                                    Tent

The Blockade                                                              The Provost Guard

Run The Blockade                                                      Go Absent Without Leave

Take French Leave                                                     Go Absent Without Leave

The Rapid Ann                                                           The Rapidan River

“Soldiers’ Friends”                                                     Lice

“A Confederate Guard of Greybacks”                        Lice

“The Confederates”                                                    Lice

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Easy Cuts

Here's an easy way to cut a couple words a page, which adds up over hundreds of pages.

Eliminate "of the" whenever possible.

"The north bank of the Rappahannock" is six words.

"The Rappahannock's north bank" is four.

Just by making this type of cut, I've probably shortened a manuscript of around four hundred pages by almost a thousand words.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Herodotus versus Thucydides

The principle criticism of Herodotus is for his reporting what he was told in response to his inquiries, but he generally differentiates what he has seen from what he has been told.  For me, his strength is the vividness, the unforgettable nature of his stories--the tyrant throwing his ring into the sea and having it brought back in a fish, Croesus on the pyre, the two Spartan lads trying to explain freedom to a Persian, and of course the fight at Thermopylae.  When I was restoring stories to my history of the Petersburg Regiment, my criterion was my inability to forget the incident in question.

The strongest criticism of Thucydides I have seen is that he fabricated the speeches in his book, though he is considered to have written from contemporary accounts and on a relatively scientific basis.  His strength is his analysis.  But his accounts are less particular than those of Herodotus, and consequently less vivid.  I cannot imagine reading Thucydides just before going to sleep, but as a boy I used to read Herodotus before going to sleep.

So while I favor Herodotus, I think Thucydides a very great historian and probably a greater analyst of history than the other father of history, Herodotus.  Telling a vivid story is entirely compatible with providing analysis.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Last Battle Flag of the Petersburg Regiment

            Federal sources mistakenly claimed that on April 6, 1865, at Saylor’s Creek, two Federal cavalrymen of Custer’s division captured flags that belonged to the 12th Virginia Infantry.[1]  Neither banner belonged to the 12tb.  Its battle line did not participate in the battle of Sailor’s Creek.  Custer/s troops charged “the enemy’s wagon train” and captured 300 wagons and much of Ewell’s command.[2]  The flags that Custer’s men allegedly captured from the 12th bore neither unit designation nor battle honors.  On June 4, 1892, before any controversy regarding the regiment’s banner had arisen, Phillips wrote:  “The Flag we had at Appomattox was not surrendered but cut up in places….”[3] 

            In 1905, the United States government returned to Virginia the flags that now hang as WD 333 and WD 437 in the American Civil War Museum (formerly the Museum of the Confederacy).  Their misidentification as banners of the 12th touched off a flurry of letters from the regiment’s veterans.  “The 12th Virginia infantry flag was not surrendered,” wrote Phillips after explaining that the 12th had not become engaged at Saylor’s Creek.  “I with my own hands tore it to pieces….”[4]  He stated that he still had the star he had taken for himself.  Phillips’ granddaughter had it in her possession when I photographed years ago in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  Attached to it is Phillips’ inscription, which states that the star is “from the Battle Flag of the 12th Va Infantry, which I with my own hands tore it up at Appomattox when we surrendered on the 9th of April 1865….”[5]  Another source corroborates Phillips.  “The regimental flag…was not surrendered,” wrote Birdsong, who also insisted that the 12th did not fight at Saylor’s Creek.  “When the regiment stacked arms after surrender, the flag was cut up by the boys….”[6] 

            Conclusive evidence came from Corporal Francis C. Stainback of Company A, the Petersburg City Guard.  It is the portion of the flag that reads “12th. Va.” and it rests in the Museum of Virginia Military Institute.  His inscription, which accompanies the fragment, states that he brought it away from Appomattox in his shoe, that the flag was divided to keep the enemy from getting it, and that the 12th never lost a flag.[7] 

            In response to an email about a captured flag identified as that of the 12th at the American Civil War Museum (formerly the Museum of the Confederacy), Robert Hancock of the museum emailed me the following:

…The flag long associated with the 12th Virginia Infantry and captured at Sailor’s Creek is listed in the records as WD 437.  However, subsequent research has determined that there is not enough evidence to designate this flag as that of the 12th Virginia. 

            The only evidence we have that the flag captured by Lt. James Gibben, 2nd NY Cavalry, at Sailor’s Creek is that of the 12th Virginia Infantry i[n] the Register of Captured Flags which also assigned the flag its WD number.  As you state, further evidence indicates that the 12th was not engaged at Sailor’s Creek and subsequently tore up their flag to prevent its surrender at Appomattox.  WD 437 is without unit identification or battle honors, but testimony states that the one torn up at Appomattox certainly had battle honors.  I believe that the fragment containing the unit ID is at VMI.  If WD 437 is a retired flag of the 12th, it would probably have been festooned with battle honors and unit ID as was the one at Appomattox.  This is just speculation.

            As a point of pride, a unit would keep its flag until they had to get a new one due to excessive damage or loss.  There is very little damage to WD 437, so probably would not have been retired.  Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any unit that surrendered two flags at the same, or approximately the same, time; one that was being actively used and one in the baggage.  For these reasons, we have decided to list this flag as belonging to an unknown unit.  There was so much confusion, and things were happening so quickly, that we may never sort out most of the unmarked flags captured at Sailor’s Creek and Appomattox….


Robert F. Hancock

Senior Curator & Director of Collections[8]

            In response to an email about another captured flag identified as that of the 12th  at the Petersburg Siege Museum, Harold Jacobson of the museum emailed me the following:

…The flag…has been tentatively identified as belonging to the 12th NC Infantry but was once thought to be from the 12th VA. The American Civil War Museum has the complete catalog record and image online, located at:

            They have a second flag, also incorrectly identified from the 12th VA infantry, which can be found here:

Harold Jacobson

Curator of Collections

City of Petersburg[9]

            In conclusion, think it is possible that the wagons captured by the Federals at Sailor's Creek contained a retired battle flag of the Petersburg Regiment, but the 12th Virginia's last battle flag was torn up at Appomattox.

[1] OR 46:1, 591-592, 1258-1259  
[2] Ibid., 1:1132, 1136. 
[3] Letter, James E. Phillips to George S. Bernard, June 4, 1892, Bernard Papers, SHC.
[4] “Capt. Jim Has A Star From Flag:  Tore Up Twelfth Virginia Colors to Prevent Their Surrender at Appomattox,” unidentified newspaper clipping, n.d., Phillips Papers, Private Collection of Elise Phillips Atkins. 
[5] Star Fragment, Phillips Papers, Private Collection of Elise Phillips Atkins. 
[6] James C. Birdsong, “Error As To Flags Of 12th Virginia:  That Regiment Fought Its Last Battle Near Farmville, Not at Sailor’s Creek,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, March 31, 1907.
[7] Francis Charles Stainback Collection, Virginia Military Institute Museum, VMI.
[8] Email, Robert Hancock to John Horn, January 6, 2016, Private Collection of John Horn.
[9] Email, Harold Jacobson to John Horn, January 14, 2016, Private Collection of John Horn.