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Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Art of History

History is an art, not a science, just as war is an art rather than a science.  A historian would need all the facts to do history scientifically, and an infinite number of them slip away like tears in rain.  Relatively few facts remain for the historian to work with, especially if they pertain to the woods east of Richmond or south of Petersburg.

I used to think that writing history resembles assembling a puzzle, but like Leroy Brown's face, the puzzle has a couple of pieces gone.  The problem with this analogy is that a puzzle, when assembled, provides a complete picture and includes everything.  A more apt comparison is with a mosaic, where there are a lot of blank space between the shiny bits.  Another apt comparison is with a pointillist painting, which has a substantial amount of canvas between the colorful dots.  The art lies in the selection, organization and analysis of the shiny bits or colorful dots.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Observations on Grant's Second Offensive at Petersburg, Part III

Yet another misconception that has arisen about this offensive is that II Corps folded as soon as the Confederates attacked its left flank.  In fact, the two brigades in Barlow's return, the Irish Brigade (which formed the right angle with the front line) and MacDougall's brigade (at the end of the return) respectively stopped cold the Alabama Brigade and the Georgia Brigade of Mahone's Division.  Then Barlow stretched out a line of skirmishers from the left of MacDougall's brigade while Mahone deployed his Virginia Brigade against them.  The skirmishers could not stop the Virginians and then Barlow's men began to melt away, followed by Mott's front line and most of Gibbon's. 

In one of his reports after the blame game began, Barlow insisted that he could have done nothing to prevent the disaster.  Maybe.  If he had brought up Miles' brigade a little earlier, he might have positioned it at the end of the return where it could well have fended off the Virginia Brigade.  If Barlow had not sent Miles' brigade back to the second Federal line, which diverged from the first at an approximately sixty-five degree angle, a counterattack by Miles' brigade might have slowed if not stopped the Confederate onslaught.  On the other hand, it seems more and more likely to me that in the second line Miles' brigade fended off the advance of Lane's and/or Scales' brigades of Wilcox's division, not just the Georgians accompanying Maj. Mills of Mahone's staff.  It is hard to tell what might have happened if Miles' brigade not been there and if Lane and/or Scales had struck the second line of Mott's division instead.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Observations on Grant's Second Offensive at Petersburg, Part II

A misconception has developed that the 20th Massachusetts of Pierce's brigade in Gibbon's division stopped Mahone's rolling up of II Corps' front line on June 22, 1864.  The truth is that Mahone's three brigades broke down under the weight of prisoners they took.  The person in the best position to know was Capt. Henry Lyman Patten of the 20th's Company E, who commanded the 20th that day.  He wrote shortly afterward:

            “The affair on which the papers have so puffed your humble servant was not by any means of the importance which has been attached to it.
“The truth was the Rebs made no attack of any consequence on the 20th.  I was ready for them if they should.  But they did not attempt seriously, if at all, to dislodge me.  I am inclined to believe that a very little resistance, or even show of resistance, such as I made, would have stopped them anywhere in our Brigade.  But the regiments on my left were completely surprised.  It was very hot, the troops were utterly exhausted by their unparalleled hardships, and the first some of them, - as I am told, - knew of the matter, was waking up and finding themselves gobbled beyond escape.
            “You must remember it was in the middle of the day, hotter than tophet, the line was in thick woods, and our men had begun to believe that Johnny Reb was never going to attack again.
            “The most serious fault rests with some General, - I don’t know who, - who so disposed his troops that the enemy got square in the rear of the left of Gibbon’s division, unopposed.  Some say it was Birney’s fault and some whisper Meade
            “There may have been some troops who behaved badly, but they were not the 15th or 19th Mass….”
            Letter, H. L. Patten to “Dear Col.,” July 10, 1864. Association of Officers of the 20th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, “Reports, letters & papers appertaining to 20th Mass. Vol. Inf. (Boston, Mass.:  Boston Public Library, 1868), 234-235.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Observations on Grant's Second Offensive at Petersburg, Part I


Brett Schulte, whose website beyondthecrater.com is a highly helpful resource for students of the fighting around Petersburg in 1864-65, thinks Grant’s Second Offensive (June 20-July 1) is the least understood of his nine offensives around the Cockade City.  I agree, and June 22 may well be the least understood day of the fighting around Petersburg.

I’m working on a history of the Second Offensive up to June 22 and probably beyond.  At first I thought, like A. Wilson Greene in Volume 1 of his A Campaign of Giants, that Grant failed to allocate sufficient troops to the task of enveloping the Cockade City from the Appomattox below town to the Appomattox above.  Indefatigable researcher Bryce Suderow, however, pointed out to me that on June 20, Grant and Meade planned to use not only II and VI corps to envelop Petersburg, but also the three white divisions of IX Corps.  And I had already, pouring through the correspondence in the Official Records, seen that on June 21, Grant suggested to Meade that V and XI corps thin their lines east of the Cockade City to provide reserves to assist in the town’s envelopment.  By June 22, the day of the disaster known as “Barlow’s Skeddaddle” or “The Petersburg Affair,” V Corps had at least two and probably four brigades in reserve and IX Corps had at least one and probably three brigades in reserve though Meade summoned only two reserve brigades from V Corps and waited until the disaster had already occurred.  He ordered up Willcox’s division from IX Corps that night and employed it to relieve Crawford’s division of V Corps, which he used to relieve Gibbon’s division of II Corps.  Instead of employing Gibbon’s division to extend the Federal line toward the Weldon Railroad, however, Meade stationed it at the Williams house on Jerusalem Plank Road to guard the left rear of VI Corps—the kind of passive defense in which he engaged during Second Reams Station, as I pointed out in The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864.

Furthermore, a change in my perspective on the forces allocated to the Cockade City’s envelopment leads me to think that I underestimated the allocation in quantifying it by divisions rather than by brigades.  Initially, I compared the divisions allocated to the Second Offensive with those eventually allocated to the Fourth Offensive south of the James.  I thought the six divisions of II and VI corps (out of twenty infantry divisions in Grant’s army group) inadequate compared with the nine divisions of V, IX and II corps (out of seventeen in Grant’s army group) at Globe Tavern on August 21, 1864. 

But I ought to have looked at the allocation in terms of brigades, more uniform in strength than divisions, which included from two to four brigades.  II and VI corps in June fielded twenty-two infantry brigades.  Add the planned three white divisions from IX Corps to II and VI corps and we get twenty-eight brigades allocated to envelopment in June, leaving twenty-nine in the trenches.  Or add the estimated seven reserve brigades in V and IX corps and we get twenty-nine brigades allocated to envelopment in June, leaving twenty-eight in the trenches.  The Federal infantry at Globe Tavern on August 21, 1864 numbered twenty-one infantry brigades (twenty-three on paper but the equivalent of at least two V Corps brigades had been destroyed on August 19).  This left twenty-one brigades to hold the trenches.

Just as the Civil War was not fought in a phone booth, neither was the Siege of Petersburg.  On February 12, 1862, Grant had enveloped Fort Donelson with about 15,000 men in seven brigades on a front of almost three miles against light resistance.  On May 18, 1863, Grant had enveloped about six and a half miles of Vicksburg’s defenses with 35,000 men in twenty brigades against no resistance.  At Petersburg he had only to extend his lines around five miles, from Jerusalem Plank Road to the upper Appomattox.   Even facing Lee rather than Floyd or Pemberton, Grant could reasonably have expected to envelop the Cockade City employing around 45,000 men in twenty-eight or twenty-nine brigades.  Maybe not in a day, but surely in less than nine months.

The problem as I see it was not a lack of men in the Second Offensive, but that Grant and Meade improvised their plan in such as way that the Confederates did not have to face II, VI and IX Corps at once.  The Federals advanced their troops piecemeal and were defeated in detail, II Corps on June 21 by Barringer and June 22 by Mahone, then VI Corps on June 22 by Cadmus Wilcox and June 23 by Mahone.  IX Corps was not deployed west of Jerusalem Plank Road.


Friday, July 13, 2018

Scan of Original Map of the Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road, June 22, 1864, from the Papers of John Willian

John Willian was a major on the staff of Maj. Gen. Gershom Mott, commander of the Third Division, II Corps, on June 22, 1864.  The accompanying map comes from Willian's papers.  I bought it July 5, 2018.  It should be cited as "Map of the Battle of the Jerusalem Plank Road, June 22, 1864, Papers of John Willian, Private Collection of John Horn, Oak Forest, Illinois."  (One day soon I'll be donating my very modest collection of Civil War documents to a more traditional repository.)

Note that the map's rear Federal line angles southwestward while the forward Federal line proceeds generally east-west.  The distance between the two lines increased from about half a mile in Gibbon's division on the right nearest Jerusalem Plank Road, to up to three quarters of a mile in Mott's division farther southwest, to a mile between Barlow's rear line and his forward elements.  The rear Federal line follows a road.  Mahone did not get between II and VI corps.  He rolled up the front line of II Corps and the rear line was too far back to interfere.

My scan was not perfect and left out some notations about enemy works at the top--the Dimmock Line.  The original is with me.  At last we are starting to get to the bottom of this least understood day of the Siege. 




Friday, July 6, 2018

Map of Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road from the papers of a New Jersey Officer in Mott's Division, II Corps

Lamar Williams informed me that a map of the June 22, 1864 fight between Mahone's division and II Corps was coming up for auction on, appropriately, June 22, 2018.  I put in a bid for it but did not get it.  By chance, I observed that the map had not sold and offers were being considered.  My offer prevailed on July 5.  The map was found among the papers of New Jersey's John Willian, an officer in Mott's division of II Corps.  Below is a link to the auctioneer's website.  I'll post the original when it reaches me.  As you can see, II Corps' first and second lines diverged.  Mott's first and second lines may have been 900 yards apart.  OR 40, 1:415-417.  This map indicates that Barlow's lines were farther apart and there was thus more room for Mahone to slip in between them.

Thanks again, Lamar!

Map of Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road

Friday, June 29, 2018

Dr. Richard J. Sommers Has a New Book published by Savas Beatie: "Challenges of Command in the Civil War."

All students of the Petersburg Campaign will want a copy of Dr. Richard J. Sommers' new book, Challenges of Command in the Civil War:  Generalship, Leadership, and Strategy at Gettysburg,  Petersburg and Beyond, Volume I: Generals and Generalship.  It is currently out from Savas Beatie.  I have just begun reading my signed copy and find it delightful.  Dr. Sommers is the dean of historians of the Cockade City's siege.

Volume II is expected out in January 2019.