Tuesday, January 1, 2013

From Antietam Creek to Stones River: Two Victories that Saved the North and Reshaped the Nation

The summer and winter of 1862 were hard times for the North.  Confederate offensives from Maryland to the Mississippi River sat at the peak of Union setbacks in the summer of 1862.  In the end, these offensives were turned back at Corinth, Perryville, and Antietam Creek; the latter also serving to redefine the nation and the war as it now sought to end slavery in the United States due to the Union victory on the banks of Antietam Creek.  Abraham Lincoln stated that he issued the proclamation strictly “as a military measure” and as such, only slaves then in territories that “the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States…” would “be then, thenceforward, and forever free….”   

In order to uphold such “a military measure,” the United States military needed to be winning.  Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity to issue the proclamation, now he needed a victory in late 1862 to put teeth behind it.  For this and other reasons, three Union offensives went forward in December 1862 to seek a victory and stop Confederate forces from reinforcing each other in different theaters of war.  The first was Ambrose Burnside’s Fredericksburg Campaign; the second was Ulysses Grant’s campaign against Vicksburg; and the last was William Rosecrans’ and the Army of the Cumberland’s offensive against Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, which culminated in the Battle of Stones River, fought 150 years ago today, and lasting from December 31, 1862 to January 2, 1863.  Burnside’s and Grant’s offensives ended in failure, causing Northern morale to reach one of its lowest points in the war.  Now all eyes were focused on the campaign begun on December 26 in Tennessee as the Lincoln administration looked to Rosecrans and his army to gain support for its emancipation policy, win a much needed victory for the Union, and end any hopes of British recognition of the Confederacy, which, it was feared, would happen as Britain “might succumb to pressure from English textile concerns and recognize the Confederacy in order to ensure their supply of raw cotton.”  The Lincoln administration was facing a similar situation to what it had seen prior to Union victories in Maryland, Kentucky, and Mississippi in the summer of 1862 and was looking to put strength behind the Emancipation Proclamation, one of the most important documents in American history. 

Rosecrans’ campaign began on December 26 with approximately 46,000 men from the Army of the Cumberland moving southeast towards Murfreesboro, where Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee, 37,000 strong, waited.  The Army of the Cumberland reached the outskirts of the central Tennessee city on December 30 and prepared for battle.  Both commanders planned offensives but Bragg struck first in the early morning hours of 1862’s last day.  In fighting so fierce that soldiers had to plug their ears with cotton, Bragg’s army had pushed Rosecrans’ to the brink of destruction and bent back the Army of the Cumberland’s line into a V-shape.  Rosecrans’ army had bent but not broken.

That night, as 1862 turned into 1863, Rosecrans held a council of war.  Knowing of the dire straits that the Union war effort was in, Rosecrans’ and his subordinates determined to fight it out against Bragg.  As George Thomas put, “This army does not retreat,” and indeed it could not retreat and give the North a third defeat in December 1862.  Thus, Rosecrans would hold his lines outside of Murfreesboro on the banks of Stones River.

150 years ago today, on New Year’s Day, there was only light skirmishing but the next day witnessed the defeat of another of Bragg’s attacks and ended the Battle of Stones River.  On January 3, Braxton Bragg and his army retreated from the field.  Of 46,000 men engaged on the Union side, 13,249 were casualties, a rate of 28 percent; 37,000 Confederates were engaged in the battle and lost 10,266 men, or a 27 percent loss.  Where the desperate fight to define the nation at Antietam is the bloodiest day in American history, Stones River stands as the Civil War battle with the highest casualty rate, totaling out at 28% and it equally served to save and define the nation in a time of crisis.

Though it is often an overlooked battle, the Battle of Stones River had a great impact on the war.  Firstly, it served to strengthen Northern spirits after the defeat of Grant at Chickasaw Bluffs and Burnside at Fredericksburg, a defeat which caused Abraham Lincoln to utter his famous words, “If there is a worse place than hell I am in it.”  After Rosecrans’ defeat of Bragg, Lincoln wired back “God bless you, and all with you!”  When speaking eight months later of the victory, Lincoln told Rosecrans: “I can never forget, whilst I remember anything, that about the end of last year, and beginning of this, you gave us a hard earned victory, which, had there been a defeat instead, the nation could scarcely have lived over.”  Not only did Rosecrans’ victory potentially save the war domestically, it also may have done so from a foreign standpoint.  The threat that the British might recognize the Confederacy in order to supply themselves with the South’s cotton was a very real one in late 1862.  When Rosecrans’ campaign began, Henry Halleck, general-in-chief of all Union armies, told Rosecrans that his campaign “may be, and perhaps is, the very turning point in our foreign relations.”  Indeed, it did serve to dissuade the British from recognizing the Confederacy.  Last but not least, on the 150th Anniversary of the issuance of the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union victory at Stones River provided a much-needed rise in support of the Union war effort and its aims, which was now to free the slaves in territory held by Confederates.  Peter Cozzens, author of No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River perhaps put it best when he wrote, “Bragg’s retreat after the battle [of Stones River] gave the North a victory at a time when defeat would have made the Emancipation Proclamation look like the last gasp of a dying war effort….”  Just as the victory at Antietam gave Lincoln the opportunity to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, the victory at Stones River garnered support for it and turned it into a main aim of the Northern war effort.  The blood spilt on the banks of Antietam Creek and the banks of Stones River had not been in vain and served to reshape not only the course of the Civil War but the nation as a whole.

Sources Used

Burlingame, Michael.  The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln.  United States of America: Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 1994.

Cozzens, Peter.  No Better Place to Die: The Battle of Stones River.  Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Hess, Earl.  The Civil War in the West: Victory and Defeat From the Appalachians to the Mississippi.  Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.  

Kolakowski, Christopher L.  "I Will Die Right Here: The Army of the Cumberland at Stones River."  Hallowed Ground 13 (2012): 14-21.

Lincoln, Abraham.  "The Emancipation Proclamation."  Featured Document.  Accessed January 1, 2013. http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/featured_documents/emancipation_proclamation/transcript.html.


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Thoughts on Sesquicentennial of the Battle of Antietam

I realize that I am a day late with this post but must say that after recovering from what proved to be a great weekend at Harpers Ferry and Antietam, I am truly glad to say that I was a part of it all!  When I first became interested in the Civil War in the spring of 2002, never did I imagine that I would participate in the events commemorating the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, a battle that changed the course of the war and changed the nation forever.

Briefly, I took part in the living history programs at Harpers Ferry all weekend, including a very touching moment at the site of the pontoon bridge over the Potomac River where 1,500 Union cavalrymen escaped Jackson's Confederates at Harpers Ferry 150 years to the minute as the escape was getting underway (more on that in an upcoming post).  During the 150th Anniversary of the bloodiest single day in American history, I participated in the all day battlefield hike, which nearly 600 people attended (again, more on that in a later post).  Great job and thank you to everyone at both parks for making the weekend one of the most memorable of my life.

However, beyond all of the events and pageantry of the weekend, please never forget the sacrifice that Americans have made across the world to fight for our freedom, and in some cases give "the last full measure of devotion" for that freedom.  As Dr. James McPherson said to conclude his remarks during the ceremony on September 17 (borrowing the words from Abraham Lincoln): "The world will little note nor longer remember what we say here, but we can never forget what they did here."  The organizers of the events to commemorate the climax of the Maryland Campaign never forgot what the soldiers of the blue and the gray did and we never must.

Again, the rest of my experiences will be posted shortly but please never forget the 23,110 Americans who became casualties on September 17, 1862 and the sacrifices they made to fight for what they believed in.
My first trip to Gettysburg in the spring of 2002

Me reading the names of the only a few of the soldiers who fell  on September 17 during the "Remembrance of the Fallen" ceremony at Antietam National Cemetery

Sunrise over the Cornfield, September 17, 2012

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Alexander Lawton's Brigade (CS)

Alexander Lawton’s Brigade

Commanded by Col. Marcellus Douglass (13th Georgia Infantry)

Ewell’s Division, Jackson’s Command

13th Georgia Infantry

361 men commanded by Capt. D.A. Kidd

26th Georgia Infantry

188 men commanded by Col. Edmund N. Atkinson

31st Georgia Infantry

145 men commanded by Lieut. Col. John Terrell Crowder

38th Georgia Infantry

123 men commanded by Capt. William Henry Battey

60th Georgia Infantry

154 men commanded by Maj. Waters Burras Jones

61st Georgia Infantry

242 men commanded by Col. John Hill Lamar

Lawton's Brigade War Department Tablet located on the south side of Cornfield Ave.

            During the entirety of the Maryland Campaign, Col. Marcellus Douglass of the 13th Georgia Infantry commanded Lawton’s Brigade due to the wounding of division commander Richard Ewell at Second Manassas and Alexander Lawton’s subsequent promotion to division command.  Prior to the Maryland Campaign, the Georgians that comprised Lawton’s Brigade were hardened veterans of the Seven Days’ Battles (June 25-July 1), Cedar Mountain (August 9), and Second Manassas (August 28-30).  Lawton’s Brigade was part of Ewell’s Division of Jackson’s Command in the Army of Northern Virginia at the outset of the Maryland Campaign.  Robert E. Lee’s movement into Maryland brought Douglass’ Georgians to Frederick, MD, where they were then dispatched to clear the Shenandoah Valley of any Federal presence as outlined in Article III of Special Orders No. 191.  This Valley Expedition brought Lawton’s Division to the outskirts of Harpers Ferry, VA, where a garrison of approximately 14,000 Federal soldiers held out.  Harpers Ferry and its garrison became completely surrounded at about 11 a.m. on September 13 when Jackson’s forces, including Lawton’s Brigade, reached Halltown a few miles west of Harpers Ferry.  John Walker had forces on Loudon Heights and the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and Richard Anderson sealed Harpers Ferry from the north and northeast by occupying Maryland Heights and Pleasant Valley.  Since the show of force by the Confederate forces did not persuade the Union garrison to surrender, Jackson tried to determine if an infantry assault against the strong position of the Federals on Bolivar Heights was necessary.  But after learning of the close proximity of George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac to Lee’s divided army, Jackson decided that a speedy resolution was needed to end the stalemate at Harpers Ferry.  Jackson devised a plan to do that: he would demonstrate in front of the Federals on Bolivar Heights with the Stonewall Division, commanded by John R. Jones, near the Potomac River (the Federal right flank) and with Ewell’s Division near the left of the Federal line astride the Charles Town Road (modern US 340).  While these two divisions feinted towards the enemy position, Jackson would send A.P. Hill’s Division around the Federal left and force it to capitulate early on the morning of September 15.  Lawton’s Brigade sat just south of the Charles Town Road on School House Ridge and held the Federals on Bolivar Heights in a position where they could be easily flanked.  This flanking movement, one of the most impressive during the war, forced Harpers Ferry and its garrison of more than 12,000 men to surrender early on the morning of September 15.  

            Shortly following the capture of Harpers Ferry, Robert E. Lee called “Stonewall” Jackson and the rest of his command to reunite with the rest of the army at Sharpsburg.  Lawton’s Brigade received captured Federal rations from Harpers Ferry and began marching immediately. The brigade crossed the Potomac River at Boteler’s Ford and reached Sharpsburg around midday on September 16, where it was placed in reserve on Lee’s left around the Dunker Church.  After the sharp skirmish in the East Woods on the evening of September 16 in which John Bell Hood’s Division was involved, Lawton’s Brigade was placed in line on the east side of the Hagerstown Pike and south of D.R. Miller’s cornfield to replace the famished men of Hood’s Division.  Marcellus Douglass, commanding the brigade, sent two companies of skirmishers under Lieutenant William Henry Harrison of the 31st Georgia into the southern portion of the cornfield.  The other eight companies of the 31st Georgia, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John T. Crowder, “a man destitute of fear,” supported the skirmishers and were positioned about 100 yards south of the cornfield.  Crowder was ordered to hold his position “as long as he had a man alive to defend it.”  The rest of Lawton’s Brigade was positioned 135 yards south of Crowder’s men.  The left of Lawton’s Brigade consisted of the 61st, 38th, and 26th Georgia facing north while the 60th and 13th Georgia, forming the right of the line, were refused slightly and generally faced northeast.  The brigade “was stretched out in a very thin line, with wide intervals between the regiments, so as to occupy as much space as possible.”  Lawton’s Brigade waited in these positions while lying on their arms, piling fence rails and rocks for cover for the battle that they knew would come the next morning.
Lawton's Brigade stood in line about where this modern treeline sits south of Cornfield Ave.
Approximate position of Lt. Col. Crowder's 31st Georgia.  This view is taken from Cornfield Ave. looking northeast towards the East Woods
Pvt. William Barkley, Co. D 31st GA.  Wounded at Antietam (civilwardata.com)

Position of Lawton's Brigade at Daybreak, September 17
            The action started early for Douglass’ Georgians on the morning of September 17.  Harrison’s skirmishers in the cornfield ran into a line of Union pickets before daybreak and Harrison was captured while the two companies of skirmishers were forced to withdraw out of the cornfield.  Exchanges between pickets had been going on all morning but the Battle of Antietam began in earnest at daybreak of September 17, with Lawton’s Brigade bearing most of the first Federal assault against the Confederate left.  A brigade of Pennsylvanians under Truman Seymour advanced out of the East Woods and drove back the eight companies of the 31st Georgia by striking the front and right of the Georgians.  Lieutenant Colonel Crowder was wounded in the first action on September 17.  Then, Isaac Bradwell, a private in the 31st Georgia, wrote what happened after the 31st reformed on the right of the brigade and as the Federals of Duryee’s Brigade began to advance towards them:

Then a grand sight met their eyes.  The number of regimental standards floating in the morning air indicated the immense numbers of the advancing enemy. It was a wonderful sight. . . . Colonel Douglass, fearing the result of an attack by so large a force on his weak brigade, ran from regiment to regiment exhorting the men not to fire until the enemy reached the fence and began to get over it--to shoot low and make every bullet count. 

Duryee’s Brigade of Ricketts’ Division was advancing due south through Miller’s cornfield and heading straight at the rifles of Douglass’ Georgians.  The colonel told his men to fire down their “own corn row” and as Duryee’s New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians came to the southern edge of the cornfield, Douglass’ men opened fire.  For the first few minutes of action between Duryee and Douglass, which started at approximately 6 a.m., neither side sought cover and each stood in open fields, simply hammering away at each other.  Ezra Carman described this slugfest in his 1,800 page manuscript on the battle: “at first no attention was paid by either line to the rail fence in their respective fronts, but each stood and fired on the other, neither party endeavoring to advance, soon, however, the severity of the fire dictated more caution and most of the men, on both sides, laid down and sought cover.”  The left side of Duryee’s line, the 104th and 105th New York, tried to break the stalemate that had developed south of the cornfield and advanced towards the right of Douglass’ line.  The 60th, 13th, and 31st Georgia regiments, from left to right respectively, waited until the enemy was within 100 yards before they opened fire.  Isaac Bradwell of the 31st Georgia noted its effects when he wrote that the volley tore “wide gaps… in the blue lines” and “the volley made them [the Federals] stagger and hesitate.”  This volley had checked the Federal advance on the right side of Douglass’ Brigade for the time being.

This view is similar to the one that Douglass' Georgians would have seen early on September 17 just before Duryee's Brigade stepped out of the corn at approximately 6 a.m.
Lawton's Brigade at 6 a.m., September 17

            Meanwhile, on the left of Douglass’ line, the Confederates were maneuvering to break the stalemate.  The 61st Georgia, on the extreme left of the brigade, moved closer to the Hagerstown Pike in order to pour a flanking fire into the right of Duryee’s men.  After suffering heavily from a stand-up brawl with Duryee, the 38th Georgia, to the 61st’s right, advanced to utilize the cover of a rock ledge that lay in their front but were bloodily repulsed by the fire of the 97th New York and 107th Pennsylvania.  Shortly after these maneuvers by the Georgians on the left of Douglass’ line, the firefight ended as Duryee’s men began to retreat north for fear of their left flank being uncovered (this was actually a false report).  Skirmishers from Douglass’ Brigade began to follow the retreating New Yorkers and Pennsylvanians into the cornfield. 

Duryee’s Brigade had lost approximately 1/3 of its men in the firefight with Douglass’ Georgians but  Lawton’s Brigade had also paid a fearful price during this action.  Its commander, Colonel Marcellus Douglass, was wounded several times by this point and his line was “very much weakened.”  Alexander Lawton, commanding the division, saw this and ordered his reserve brigade under Harry Hays to support Douglass’ left.  As it was moving to do this, Douglass directed the brigade to support his right flank.  Hays’ Louisianans moved as directed by Douglass and then began to drive north in a counterattack into the cornfield.

Counterattack of Hays' and Lawton's Brigades, 6:45 a.m., September 17

As Douglass’ skirmishers and the reinforcements under Hays began to push north towards the cornfield, the rest of Douglass’ Brigade joined in the attack.  As the Georgians advanced north, two fresh Federal brigades met them.  Gibbon’s Brigade, which had just earned the sobriquet the Iron Brigade only a few days before, advanced towards Douglass’ left and Hartsuff’s Brigade towards their right.  Douglass’ men advanced under the fire of these two brigades and suffered heavily, losing most of the field officers in this charge, including every regimental commander falling either killed or wounded.  The left end of Douglass’ line was quickly driven back by Gibbon’s men near the Hagerstown Pike while the right side of the line fared slightly better; their advance was checked but the 60th, 13th, and 31st Georgia regiments held on while trading deadly blow for deadly blow with the men of Hartsuff’s Brigade.  A soldier of the 12th Massachusetts wrote of this fight that it was “the most deadly fire of the war.”  Eventually, he would prove correct as Douglass’ men could no longer hold on to their position and were forced to retreat south towards the Dunker Church at about 7:00 a.m.  During this final withdrawal, the brigade’s beloved commander, Colonel Marcellus Douglass, was struck for the eighth and final time.  Isaac Bradwell wrote of the colonel’s last moments: “He [Douglass] begs them to let him die on the battle field with his men, declaring he would rather die there than in the arms of his wife at home.”  The remnants of the brigade withdrew back to the Dunker Church and as they did, they were passed by the next two brigades to be sent into the whirlwind of death that centered around the cornfield.  These two brigades were those of William Wofford and Evander Law of John Bell Hood’s Division.  Unlike the time when Hays’ Louisianans reinforced them, the men of Lawton’s Brigade could not muster enough energy to join in the counterattack.  Indeed, by this point, the Georgians were so beat up that they could only muster “a man every ten feet or more” to stem any more Federal attacks.  Lucky for them, the Georgians would not have to fight any more on that bloody Wednesday, September 17, 1862; they remained in a reserve position just north of Sharpsburg for the rest of the day.  At sundown of September 17, Lawton’s Brigade could muster only 48 men of the 1,213 men it had carried into the battle.  However, Robert E. Lee was not done with Lawton’s Brigade yet. 

Approximate position of Lawton's Brigade after it withdrew from its position south of the Cornfield at approximately 7:00 a.m.

As Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated from their positions east of Sharpsburg on the night of September 18 into the morning of the 19th, the men of Lawton’s Brigade, now numbering a few hundred with stragglers and those not seriously wounded rejoining the ranks, along with the Virginians of Lewis Armistead’s Brigade and 33 guns of William Pendleton’s Reserve Artillery, were ordered to guard the ford on the Potomac River that the army would use to retreat, commonly called Boteler’s or Shepherdstown Ford.  This force, numbering about 600 men total, was under the overall command of Pendleton.  He had 200 men of Lawton’s and Armistead’s Brigades spread thinly on the Virginia (now West Virginia) side of the Potomac River to protect his guns from Federal infantry while the other 400 were in a reserve position behind the artillery on the bluffs above the river.  Shortly after noon on September 19, Federal forces of Fitz John Porter’s V Corps arrived on the Maryland side of the river and began exchanging small arms and long-range artillery fire with Lee’s rearguard under Pendleton.  Running low on ammunition and suffering from increased Federal pressure, Pendleton gave orders for his command to pull back.  Just as these orders were being carried out, the 4th Michigan and the 1st United States Sharpshooters dashed across the Potomac at about dusk on the 19th towards the Confederate positions.  The Confederate infantrymen of Lawton’s Brigade, now commanded by Colonel John Lamar of the 61st Georgia, and Armistead’s Brigade did not put up much of a resistance to the crossing and were already retreating as the Federals began their assault.  As a result, only four Union soldiers were hit while crossing the river.  The rout of Pendleton’s force a few miles downstream of Shepherdstown prompted Lee to send A.P. Hill’s Division back to the Potomac early on the morning of September 20.  This action, that lasted two days and added 677 more names to the casualty lists of the Maryland Campaign, ended the campaign for not only Lawton’s Brigade but for both the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.

Boteler's Ford on the Potomac River.  This view is from the Maryland side of the river looking across the river at the positions of Lawton's and Armistead's Brigade

Lawton’s Brigade was a part of some of the heaviest fighting that took place that September in western Maryland and it paid heavily for it.  Of the 1,213 men that it carried into battle on September 17, 565 (46.6%) were reported as casualties.  Of those 565 casualties, 42 of them were officers, the greatest loss being Marcellus Douglass, the brigade commander.  Douglass was viewed as a rising star in the Army of Northern Virginia and all felt his loss.  He was greatly loved by his men, mainly for his willingness to stay with them in battle despite his own hardships.  After already being wounded several times during the morning’s fight on the 17th, one soldier of the brigade wrote that “though wounded in several places and feeble from the loss of blood, he [Douglass] still rushes from regiment to regiment exhorting the men to hold their position, to shoot low, and make every cartridge count….”  Jubal Early, who took command of the division that Lawton’s Brigade served in during the battle, wrote simply, “in the death of Colonel Douglass the country sustained a serious loss.  He was talented, courageous, and devoted to his duty.”  A Georgia newspaper correspondent perhaps put it best by saying that “Col. Douglass was gaining an enviable position in the army, and had for some time been accounted a superior military man.  In his death Georgia has lost one of her bright military representatives.  He is properly called our ‘second Bartow.’”  Indeed, all of the Georgians who lost their lives during the Maryland Campaign could be seen as “second Bartow[s],” as men who sacrificed everything that they had to fight for what they believed in.

Men Present for Duty
Officers Killed
Enlisted Men Killed
Officers Wounded
Enlisted Men Wounded
Officers Missing
Enlisted Men Missing
13th GA
216 (59.8%)
26th GA
61 (32.4%)
31st GA
53 (36.6%)
38th GA
71 (57.8%)
60th GA
60 (39%)
61st GA
104 (43%)
565 (46.6%)

Georgia Monument south of Cornfield Ave.


Carman, Ezra.  The Maryland Campaign of 1862.

Gottfried, Bradley.  The Maps of Antietam: An Atlas of the Antietam (Sharpsburg) Campaign, including the Battle of South Mountain, September 2 - 20, 1862.

Harsh, Joseph.  Taken at the Flood.

Harsh, Joseph.  Sounding the Shallows.

Johnson, Pharris.  Under the Southern Cross: Soldier Life with Gordon Bradwell and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Official Records Volume IX

Styple, William.  Writing & Fighting From the Army of Northern Virginia: A Collection of Confederate Soldier Correspondence.