Hombres MC visit some American Civil War National Battlefield Monuments. Many located between Washington, DC and the Confederate Capital in Richmond, VA. We had five days and we put on about 700 miles. Then we went up part of the Blue Ridge Parkway toward home (in the rain and fog)
Most of the landmarks within the battlefield areas are not well preserved after 150 years. The farmhouse named “Chancellorsville” is no longer there and the crossroads where the battle was fought is now a four-lane highway. The Fredericksburg site is in the middle of a housing project.
The National Park Service has constructed exceptionally interesting sites containing films outlining the events, artifacts and on-site lectures from park rangers. All well done, and I might add limited now because of the “sequester” so if you go, be sure and put some cash in the pot to maintain this essential American history.
Naturally, it would be impossible for me to delve into much of the history of the American Civil War as very notable authors have spent lifetimes trying to understand it. Ken Burns filmed the progression over 12 hours. There are, however, a few issues of personal interest to me I can scratch the surface of.
Some of the famous battles are remarkable not so much for what happened as what might have been.
The first major battle to take place on Union soil occurred on Sept 17, 1962 at Antietam creek, near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan launched a frontal attack on the Confederate Army led by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker in and around a cornfield used for cover for both sides.
After the brutal battle in which over 23,000 young men lost their lives in one day, was fought to a brutal draw, but advantage lay with the Union as the Confederate troops were outnumbered and disorganized. Lee ordered the Confederate troops to withdraw and re-group. At this point, a further push by the Union Army might have decimated Lee’s meager residual forces before they could re-group.
However, McClellan was a notoriously cautious General and fearful of ordering his men into actual battle unless victory with minimal casualties was a virtual lead pipe cinch. McClellan refused to pursue Hooker, even with the assistance of reinforcements from Maj. Gen Ambrose Burnside’s fresh troops lingering outside the action. He simply didn’t think he needed to. The Confederate Army was conceptually doomed and would collapse soon anyway with no additional loss of his troops. This allowed Hooker to safely retreat back south of the Potomac to re-constitute.
In terms of military strategy and tactics, McClellan fatefully failed to bring the full brunt of his forces to bear as a “Force Multiplier”, to make a given force more effective than that same force would be without it. Essentially, to cause disproportionate losses on the enemy, and therefore destroy the enemy’s ability to fight. Sherman notoriously used this strategy that came to be known as “scorched earth” in his “march to the Sea” in 1864.
This lapse allowed Hooker to shift his forces to meet each encounter with the best possible efficacy using fewer men. Some historians believe that Lee’s army could have been wiped out at Antietam and had that occurred, the war would have been dramatically shortened or over.
The battle at Fredericksburg, VA occurred on December 11-15, 1862 between the Confederate Army commanded by Robert E. Lee and the Union Army commanded by Maj. Gen Ambrose Burnside. This battle is remembered for one of the most spectacular tactical blunders in the history of warfare, resulting in Union casualties twice as heavy as Confederate.
Burnsides plan was to cross the Rappahannock River on pontoon bridges to meet the Confederates south of the village of Fredericksburg. However, on arrival at the riverbank, Burnside found no pontoons (due to bureaucratic blunder) and was assured they would arrive in a day or two. So Burnside camped out and waited.
Meanwhile, Lee’s forces wondered where the Union Army was, so Lee sent scouts up who reported the situation. This allowed Lee to move up to meet Burnside in and around the town of Fredericksburg and more importantly, occupy the high ground south of the town with a stone wall for cover.
When the pontoons arrived, Burnside was forced to endure withering fire moving his troops across the river. On finally arriving on the opposite bank, Burnside ordered multiple frontal assault against 3,000 Confederate infantrymen lined up in multiple ranks behind the stone wall for about 600 yards and another 3,000 with artillery behind it. The Union troops were repulsed with heavy losses. It’s said that a walk along the entire of the killing field would not allow a boot to touch a single blade of grass. Only bodies.
Burnside stubbornly continued these assaults until he essentially ran out of manpower, following which he attempted to blame his subordinates. The following day, Dec 14, Burnside asked Lee for a truce to attend to his wounded, which the latter graciously granted, but ultimately proved to be a tactical mistake. The next day Dec 15, the Federal forces retreated across the river, and the campaign came to an end. The Union army suffered 12,653 casualties in three days of fighting. The Confederate army lost 5,377 men. Burnside was relieved of command a month later.
Again, as at Antietam, the military strategy and tactics are remarkable. For the entire battle, Lee’s forces needed only maintain their position and thin out assaulting Union forces from a position of relative safety. By the evening of Dec 14, the Union army lay decimated and extremely vulnerable, trapped between a superior confederate force occupying protected high ground and a river. For unclear reasons, Lee decided to wait out the night before actually assaulting the Union forces the following morning. This allowed the residual Union forces time to escape back across the river and eventually regroup on Union soil. Lee is said to have regretted this decision bitterly.
The Union Army (of the Potomac) then went on to another defeat at Chancellorsville in early May of 1963, followed by a series of smaller but cumulative losses. Ultimately, the loss of the Confederacy became a self fulfilling prophesy ending with the ill fated Appomattox Campaign and the evacuation of Richmond that culminated in Lee’s surrender on April 9. 1865.
A neutral spot, The McLean House (a private residence near the Appomattox Courthouse) was selected for the two Generals to meet and discuss terms, which were exceptionally generous. Roughly 175,000 Confederates remained in the field were allowed to keep all the possessions except arms and flags. Each was issued a signed “parole” document guaranteeing free passage back home (avoiding potential charges of desertion).
Maj. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain, commander of one of the major Union brigades was a stirring figure responsible for one of the most poignant scenes of the era. He had personally directed 20 battles, was cited for bravery four times, had six horses shot from under him and was wounded six times.
Chamberlain ordered the line of Union troops to “order Arms” as the Confederates passed by as a measure of respect. Observing this action, surrendering General of the remaining Confederate troops, Gen. John Brown Gordon wheeled his horse around, drew his sword placing the point against the toe of his boot and decreed similar respect for the Union troops. This order was carried out and the two movements proceeded silently and mournfully.
Thus ended the bloodiest battle in American history. A total of 214,938 deaths in combat. At least 500,000 deaths from disease and ultimate wounds for a total death count of ~ 625,000. WW II yielded 405,000 deaths and Vietnam a paltry ~58,000 deaths in eight years. 23,000 men died at Antietam in one day and ~50,000 at Gettysburg in three days.
An interesting medical aside is the story of Dr. Jonathan Letterman, a Civil War surgeon said to have developed the concept of “triage”. Born in Canonsburg, PA, he was named medical director for the Union Army of the Potomac in May 1962. He initiated forward first aid stations, devised systems where fallen soldiers would be classified as to urgency of treatment while attending casualties at Antietam. He also refined ambulance systems and distribution of supplies. He was light years ahead of his time.
Interestingly, there is a note on EBay (and a mention on “Pawn Stars”) flatly stating that any Confederate Flag that might be found on any Internet auction site is virtually guaranteed to be fake. There are simply none left that aren’t in museums and the chances of finding one, however unlikely, would bring tens of thousands of dollars. Virtually all Confederate swords and other hardware are expert fakes.
In my photo gallery, you will see his portrait, the barn where the “enlisted” troops were treated (Naturally- officers were treated up at the mansion) and some of the accouterments of his trade.
Here is my photo journal if you have an interest:
(Click the HD icon and full frame)
I think Mississippian Shelby Foote writes the definitive history of this era and it’s as complete as it gets. His trilogy contains over a million words.
For the visually inclined, Ken Burns’ twelve-part documentary of the era on PBS (1990) is a masterpiece.