Monday, December 18, 2017

Gettysburg -- Mahone's Night Attack, July 2, 1863

"The suspense was unbearable, especially as, after awhile, some talk of instructing the men to fasten white bandages of some sort to the left arms began to be whispered about--the suggestion coming, as such things do, from nowhere and everywhere . . . . I have never heard, nor do any of the reports contain, any illusion to this abandoned project."  - William E. Cameron
Map of the battlefield of Gettysburg, Schuyler, LOC 

Below are two accounts from veterans of William Mahone's brigade describing a night attack planned for July 2 against the Union center at Gettysburg. For much of the 2nd, Mahone’s men remained in reserve at McMillan’s Woods on Seminary Ridge as other brigades in Richard Anderson's division conducted attacks across the Emmitsburg Road. However, sometime after dark, Mahone's regiments gathered for a night assault. Before the Virginians lunged ahead into the darkness though, the operation was called off. George S. Bernard and William E. Cameron, both members of the 12th Virginia, recalled the movement after the war. Their complete reminiscences of the Gettysburg Campaign are in Civil War Talks:  Further Reminiscences of George S. Bernard & His Fellow Veterans.   

 George S. Bernard, 12th Virginia Infantry
  "it was . .  proposed to make a night attack" -
George S. Bernard
The foregoing entry in the diary, made on the battlefield during the afternoon of Friday, July the 3rd, the day of the great battle, omits a move, made about dark on the preceding evening, which no man in Mahone’s brigade who took part in it can ever forget. After the heavy fighting on the right, in which a portion of our division as mentioned was engaged, it was, as we understood, proposed to make a night attack, and for that purpose our brigade was taken from its position in a body of woods, or grove, on the slope of the hill where it had been since the forenoon, and marched some two hundred or more yards to our right and there taken to the crest of the hill, preparatory, as we all thought, to beginning a charge. 

It was, indeed, a serious and trying time, as we stood on the crest in readiness to move, the open fields to our right and front being then traversed by occasional shells whose blazing fuses made their pathway plainly visible, every man feeling that the order to go forward would soon come. Fortunately, however, for our particular command the order that came--and it came after a suspense of only a few minutes--took us, not forward to make an attack, but back to our former position, Gen. Lee having determined not to make the proposed assault. That we retraced our steps with a feeling of relief, it is hardly necessary to state. This incident of the evening of the 2nd of July, when writing in my diary on the afternoon of the 3rd, I overlooked, or deemed not worthy of mention in connection with the other over-shadowing events of those two days that were briefly recorded.

 William Cameron, 12th Virginia
Adjutant, Mahone’s Brigade
"I expect the heart of every man in the column was in his mouth"
WE Cameron.jpg
William E. Cameron
" . . . we were ordered out of the woods and conducted to the front by a route inclining to our right, through the wheat field occupied by our skirmishers, to a position between our main line and that of the enemy, confronting, but somewhat obliquely, Cemetery Hill. The movement was made in perfect silence, without a word in explanation of its object, and I expect the heart of every man in the column was in his mouth--I know mine was--as we stole silently and swiftly through the starlit, but dark night, to what was conjectured to be some perilous enterprise. Having penetrated the field towards the Federal stronghold to the distance of some six hundred yards, maybe more, possibly not so far--I am giving my impressions--we halted in line behind a tall worm-fence. 

Then, through the utter stillness, I could hear the muffled tread of other marchers, and through the mist in the valley see indistinctly other bodies of men to the right and left. The suspense was unbearable, especially as, after awhile, some talk of instructing the men to fasten white bandages of some sort to the left arms began to be whispered about--the suggestion coming, as such things do, from nowhere and everywhere. This smacked of a night assault, and recalled what I had read about forlorn hopes. I determined to find out something, and crept along the fence until I saw a group of horsemen, among whom were Generals Longstreet and Anderson. Their talk soon enlightened me that an attack in the dark was contemplated, though I could not hear all that was said. 

The discussion lasted some minutes, during which there seemed to be some difference of opinion between the two officers. At last, General Longstreet said in distinct tones--the reasons for caution having presumably ceased with the decision--“It would be best not to make the attempt. Let the troops return.” In less than five minutes we are on our way back and soon regained our former station. Just on arriving there, before the ranks had been broken, one solitary shell from the enemy whistled through the blackness and burst, it seemed to me, immediately among the men. Then all was still again. No one was hurt, and the remaining hours to daylight were unbroken by any sound save on occasional shot on the distant picket posts. I have never heard, nor do any of the reports contain, any illusion to this abandoned project.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

"Rebel Forces on North Side of James" -- October 5, 1864

Here is a Union intelligence report prepared two days before Robert E. Lee's October 7, 1864 attack on the Darbytown and New Market Roads. I ran across this document in the Benjamin F. Butler Papers at the Library of Congress.

"Rebel Forces on North Side of James"
(Provost Marshal, HQ Dept. of Virginia and N.C. (Oct. 5, 1864))

Butler Papers, Library of Congress

Throughout much of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, General Butler and his staff in the Army of the James tirelessly tracked the identity, strength, and organization of enemy units in their front, east of Richmond. From deserter reports and other sources, they maintained an “Organization Book” listing Confederate units and their commanders. In late September 1864, a correspondent from Fraser's Magazine of Town and Country visited Butler's headquarters and prepared an extensive account of the general, including his system for gathering enemy intelligence.

"[Butler's] provost-marshal has written down from time to time in shorthand the answers of every prisoner. From these an abstract has been made in the form of a table, which contains the regiments arranged in their brigades, divisions, and corps; the commanders of each; and notes as to the effective strength of each; which is arrived at by cross-questioning successively the members of each regiment represented in a batch of prisoners, who meanwhile are not allowed to communicate with each other."

In Butler's command, Lieutenant John I. Davenport, the Assistant Provost-Marshal, prepared much of the correspondence related to Confederate dispositions north of the James River. However, Butler's staffers were not the only ones keeping track of Robert E. Lee's forces. Outside Petersburg to the south, John C. Babcock, a civilian serving in the Bureau of Information in the Army of the Potomac, routinely prepared reports filled with intelligence gleaned from deserters, prisoners, and refugees.

The October 5, 1864 report (above) compares well to relevant excerpts from official Confederate reports (below) prepared later that month. Indeed, Charles Field and Robert Hoke's infantry divisions comprised the bulk of Confederate strength east of Richmond in early October. Field's men would spearhead the attack at Johnson's Farm along the Darbytown Road on the morning of October 7 while Hoke's division remained in reserve. In addition, the report notes the presence of local defense forces, militia units cobbled from Richmond's factory workers and government clerks. However, despite the report's general accuracy, there are some gaps. A notable omission is the absence of Martin Gary's cavalry brigade, which led the October 7 attack. The report also asserts that George T. Anderson's brigade was "not here." But Anderson's Georgians were in fact present with Field's division in the October 7 fighting.

Confederate Order of Battle Outside Richmond - October 1864
(from official Confederate reports (Oct. 31, 1864) (O.R. 42(3))
O.R. Series 1, 42(3):1188
Image from Cornell Univ. Making of America Collection
O.R. Series 1, 42(3):1197
Image from Cornell Univ. Making of America Collection 

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Butler & Peck: A Bit of Intrigue in North Carolina

Major General Benjamin F. Butler, LOC
Major General John J. Peck, LOC

                                 ⛋          ⛋          ⛋          ⛋          ⛋

During a recent visit to the Library of Congress, I came across correspondence about a scheme hatched by Benjamin Butler and John Peck to divvy up command in the mid-Atlantic states. The November 25, 1863 letter, transcribed below, discusses a ploy to simultaneously expand Butler’s geographical command while granting Peck his own department in North Carolina. The letter, which does not appear in the Official Records or Butler's published papers, reveals a surprising pulse of ambition in John Peck, who was generally viewed as a conservative, unremarkable officer. Benjamin Butler, on the other hand, was no stranger such maneuvers.
The exchange between the pair occurred shortly after Benjamin Butler had taken command of the Department of Virginia and North Carolina. At the time, Major General Peck supervised the North Carolina District at New Bern, part of the Butler’s department. Within days of assuming his new post, Butler toured the principal Union positions in North Carolina, including New Bern, Washington, and Plymouth. During the visit, Butler and Peck discussed the organization of the Department. Peck followed up on this conversation with the note below, proposing an arrangement that would simultaneously expand Butler’s command while giving Peck an independent department.
       The letter mostly speaks for itself. However, “Gen’l Dix” refers to Major General John A. Dix, who had requested Peck's service in the Department of the East, a command that included New York and New England. Further, the “Admiral” mentioned in the letter is Samuel Phillips Lee, who led the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. A cousin of Robert E. Lee, Phillips Lee supposedly once quipped that he would join the Confederacy only “when I find the word Virginia in my commission.”   
       The arrangement discussed in Peck's letter never went off and the general remained in command at New Bern. However, in April of 1864, Butler relieved Peck from command during the Confederate offensive against Plymouth. In another letter, also in the Butler papers, an angry Peck complained that the Massachusetts general had induced him to remain in North Carolina by offering “many reasons and considerations of a confidential character which can hardly have escaped your memory.” [Peck to Butler, April 24, 1864, General Correspondence, Benjamin F. Butler Papers, Library of Congress.]  

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Major General John Peck to Major General Benjamin Butler, November 25, 1863
General Correspondence, Benjamin F. Butler Papers, Library of Congress.
Peck to Butler, Nov. 25, 1863 (image of first page)


                                                    Head-Quarters, Army and District of North Carolina,
                                                                                            Newbern, N.C. Nov 25, 1863.
 Maj Gen’l B. F. Butler,

Dear Gen’l,
I arrived at headquarters about noon yesterday after a most charming and delightful trip, for which I am wholly indebted to you and Mrs. & Miss Butler and your party. My only regret was that during our interview below, the Ladies passed to the Spaulding and I was deprived of the pleasure of saying goodbye, and of inviting the Ladies to N.C. when you should visit it. That commission I charged upon you, having full faith that you would execute it in accord with my wishes.
On leaving Hatteras my Boat grounded on the swash and did not get off until near day break. The Neuse was all in dense fog and in consequence we were detained some hours.
The Admiral I sent to Beaufort & he proposed leaving this morning for Wilmington squadron. He says that here before the blockade was not sought for, but now all wish to join it, because of prize money. He says some 30[?] vessels are there. This consideration of course operates with more or less to keep up the blockade in preference to blocking up the rivers and cutting off the trade.
The Navy oppose any gun boats, as you suggested, because they reduce their amount of prize money.
General, in view of the application of Gen’l Dix, and of the full confidential interview which you was too kind as to honor me with, touching commands & c. I venture to present for consideration a new proposition, and it arises from a wish to remain in N.C. for a while.
Your observation and your examination of the map have [__ ___] shown that North Carolina is not the proper compliment of the Dept of Virginia, and that in N.C. ought to be independent. Again the Middle Dept is the compliment of your command in Virg.
Now Gen’l suppose you secure the Middle and give me N.C. You can do this from your influence at Court, if it meets your approbation, Gen’l Dix and friends would be pleased, and I am assured that the Treas. Dept. would be entirely satisfied in respect to their interest.
Gen’l I make a suggestion with full confidence that you will appreciate my motives and understand that it is not prompted by any desire to get out of your command, or to interfere with or curtail your Department to limits, or for the purpose of an embarrassing your relations with the Government. An amicable management by which you shall be the substantial gainer to what I wish to shadow forth.
All is quiet. There are indications of a breaking up of our pleasant weather by long rain storms. During my absence a mess of papers have accumulated for my attention, which I doubt not are exceeded by the pile up on your table.
With my remembrance to your family I remain.

Sincerely Yours,
John Peck

I wish very much copies of your speech and of the late decision of the U.S. court to which allusion was made when you was here.