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Monday, June 29, 2015

Review: A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864

[As I prepare to rewrite The Petersburg Campaign, I will review the books I must read or re-read to do the job right.]
               Recently, in a series of entries in my blog,, I suggested a number of strategies for we amateur historians to employ to add value to our work.  One strategy I suggested was narrowing the focus of a book to the point where its author could more easily research his topic as exhaustively as the standard setter for research, Dr. Richard Sommers, researched his masterwork, Richmond Redeemed An example of this strategy I gave was A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad:  The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864, by David Faris Cross. 
                When Dr. Cross’s book was published in 2003, the dust jacket contained a blurb from me:  “…the definitive account of the Vermont Brigade’s disaster on June 23, 1864…will provide a solid foundation for more general historians.  The story of the vicissitudes of the Vermonters in Confederate captivity is particularly enlightening.” 
                I can still say the same.  Dr. Cross’s book recounts the disaster that befell the Vermont Brigade of the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps on June 23, 1864, at the hands of Maj. Gen. William Mahone’s division of the Army of Northern Virginia.  The book contains helpful maps of the action involved, some sketches by participants, and a frontispiece based on a U.S. Geological survey map of the contested ground.  There are numerous pictures of individual soldiers, as one would expect in a history focused on a portion of a single brigade. 
Dr. Cross methodically depicts the malaise that afflicted the Union command structure that day, one day after the Army of the Potomac’s II Corps had met with a catastrophe several times bigger at Mahone’s hands.  The book moves from strength to strength.  After recounting the fiasco, Dr. Cross follows Mahone’s victims as they made their way to Andersonville, where an unusually high proportion perished.  A physician, Dr. Cross examines the mixture of medical incompetence, official indifference and public hostility that led to the deaths of so many prisoners.  He analyzes the humbug put forth by the official historian of Vermont’s soldiers to make it possible for one of the officers most responsible for the disaster to be elected governor of Vermont many years after the war.  Then Dr. Cross goes on to allocate blame. 
                I do not agree with all of Dr. Cross’s conclusions.  He thinks the Federals ought to have defeated the heavily outnumbered Mahone on June 23, 1864.  I think that conclusion excessively optimistic.  In the first place, the commander of VI Corps did not know that he faced a single division rather than an entire corps.  Secondly, a Confederate flanking maneuver had routed II Corps the day before.  This made the VI Corps commander very uneasy about his flanks.  Expecting VI Corps to have defeated Mahone that day strikes me as similar to expecting a swimmer to defeat a shark.  Mahone, a former railroad engineer, knew the ground around Petersburg as well as any man alive.  The Federals scarcely knew that ground at all.  This is not to say that Mahone could not have been defeated.  He was not invincible.  He met with defeat at Globe Tavern on August 21, 1864, as the result of inadequate reconnaissance.  Hie was roughly handled at Burgess Mill on October 27, 1864, when he charged into themidst of II Corps, which was well positioned to counterattack, and did so very effectively.  About the most that could be expected on June 23, 1864, would have been for VI Corps to support its pickets and possibly inflict a minor defeat on Mahone as he attempted to encircle them.
                Dr. Cross also thinks that Mahone did not perform well that day in comparison with the Federals, given the higher percentage of his casualties compared with theirs.  I think that Dr. Cross has not looked at this from the proper perspective.  When about 6,000 soldiers with the disadvantage of fighting on the offensive inflict 588 casualties on around 12,000 opponents (counting only the two divisions of VI Corps involved—Dr. Cross uses all three divisions of VI Corps and about 18,000 opponents which only makes the matter worse) at a cost of 152 to themselves, they have achieved a very troubling superiority in combat efficiency of about eight to one (twelve to one if there were 18,000 opponents) without even adjusting by a factor of 1.4 for the hasty defensive advantage of their opponents.  The adjustment gives a combat efficiency of about eleven to one (seventeen to one if there were 18,000 opponents).  This is a differential in combat efficiency that the statistical work of T. N. Dupuy in A Genius for War finds only on World War I’s Eastern Front.  Confederates hardly ever attained such an advantage over their foes.  Its significance here is that Grant’s army, at this point, was completely used up.  Almost four weeks passed before he launched his next offensive of the campaign.
                Disagreeing with a couple of Dr. Cross’s conclusions, however, does not mean that he has produced any less of a definitive account of the Vermont Brigade’s horrific experience.  He has done an excellent job of laying the facts out for the reader to draw his own conclusions.  This book is not just a good book.  It is an exemplary book.  It belongs on the shelf of every student of the Petersburg Campaign.