Was it really a diversion?


From Peter Maugle

What was Burnside thinking? The question has been posed by innumerable battlefield visitors, historians, and even Civil War veterans in regards to Fredericksburg. The notable Union defeat leads many to ponder the Federal commander’s intent. Burnside indeed had a plan, however its premise has been debated since 1862.

One hypothesis regarding the Union plan postulates a primary effort by Major General William Franklin’s Left Grand Division against the Confederate right, while Major General Edwin Sumner’s Right Grand Division conducted a diversion on the Confederate left at the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights. On the surface, this notion appears to explain an otherwise misunderstood tactical plan. But is it really that simple? How did an intended diversion result in 30,000 troops launching all-out attacks for six hours? A closer look at the facts seems to refute the diversion theory.

Major General Ambrose E. Burnside (Library of Congress)

To begin, consider the orders Burnside wrote on the morning of the battle. While they may lack clarity, these orders attempted to outline Burnside’s intentions. Here is the order issued to General Franklin on the morning of December 13th: [emphasis added]

“The general commanding directs that you keep your whole command in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road, and you will send out at once a division at least to pass below Smithfield, to seize, if possible, the height near Captain Hamilton’s, on this side of the Massaponax, taking care to keep it well supported and its line of retreat open. He has ordered another column up the Plank road to its intersection with the Telegraph road, where they will divide, with a view to seizing the heights on both of these roads. Holding these two heights, with the heights near Captain Hamilton’s, will, he hopes, compel the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge between these points …”

The order does not designate primary or secondary attacks. Consequently, in his testimony to the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, Franklin claimed he was unaware that his assault held any precedence.

Major General William B. Franklin (Library of Congress)

Next is the order issued to General Sumner, which is similar to Franklin’s instructions: [emphasis added]

“The general commanding directs that you extend the left of your command to Deep Run, connecting with General Franklin, extending your right as far as your judgement may dictate. He also directs that you push a column of a division or more along the Plank and Telegraph roads, with a view to seizing the heights in the rear of the town. The latter movement should be well covered by skirmishers, and supported so as to keep its line of retreat open. Copy of instructions given to General Franklin will be sent to you very soon. You will please await them at your present headquarters, where he (the general commanding) will met you. Great care should be taken to prevent a collision of our own forces during the fog … The column for a movement up the Telegraph and Plank roads will be got in readiness to move, but will not move till the general commanding communicates with you.”

After the battle, Sumner testified to the Congressional committee, “I was ordered by the general commanding to select the corps to make the attack … They made repeated assaults … I do not think it a reproach to those divisions that they did not carry that position …”

Sumner did not mention any effort to distract the enemy, but rather he provided rationale for why his troops did not take their assigned objective, as was apparently expected of them. Surely, Sumner would have cited the intent of his orders if they had never stipulated success in the first place!

Major General Edwin V. Sumner (Library of Congress)

An eager contributor to the Congressional committee’s inquiry was Major General Joseph Hooker, commander of the Center Grand Division at Fredericksburg. Portions of his forces were engaged on both ends of the battlefield, and Hooker recalled, “But General Burnside said that his favorite place of attack was on the telegraph road. Said he, ‘That has always been my favorite place of attack.’ The army was accordingly divided to make two attacks.”

The most direct reference to the diversionary attack concept was during Franklin’s questioning by the committee. When queried about the potential for Union success, Franklin responded:

“It is my opinion that if, instead of making two real attacks, our whole force had been concentrated on the left – that is, our available force – and the real attack had been made there, and merely a feint made upon the right, we might have carried the heights.”

Franklin definitively asserted there was no diversionary demonstration, which in his opinion ultimately contributed to the failure of the plan. Admittedly, Franklin was under scrutiny by the committee and attempted to justify his actions. However, to declare a blatantly false statement would likely generate rebuttals, of which there were none. And as we have seen, this deposition by Franklin does not contradict any of the other testimonies.

Map by Hal Jespersen, http://www.cwmaps.com

Thus, it seems the actual plan was more complicated and nuanced than simply a main attack supported by a diversion. Burnside, in his testimony to the committee, stated:

“I wanted to obtain possession of that new [military] road, and that was my reason for making an attack on the extreme left. I did not intend to make the attack on the right until that position had been taken; which I supposed would stagger the enemy, cutting their line in two; and then I proposed to make a direct attack on their front, and drive them out of their works.”

In a letter to General-in-Chief Henry Halleck, Burnside reinforced his goal of seizing the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights: [emphasis added]

“I discovered that he did not anticipate the crossing of our whole force at Fredericksburg, and I hoped, by rapidly throwing the whole command over at that place to separate, by a vigorous attack, the forces of the enemy on the river below from the forces behind and on the crest in the rear of the town, in which case we could fight him with great advantage in our favor. For this we had to gain a height on the extreme right of the crest which commanded a new road lately made by the enemy …”

Regardless of Burnside’s ultimate intentions, much relied on how well he communicated them and if they withstood the changing nature of a fluid battle. While legitimate criticisms may be leveled on Burnside for those shortcomings, there is no basis to misconstrue the assaults on the Sunken Road and Marye’s Heights as diversions or anything other than what they were meant to be – genuine attacks.

 

Franklin, William B. A Reply of Maj. Gen. William B. Franklin to the Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1863.

U.S. Congress. Report of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. 3 vols. Washington: GPO, 1863; 5 vols. 1865.

U.S. War Department. The War of the Rebellion: The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. 128 vols. Washington: GPO, 1880-1901.

Upton’s Attack at Spotsylvania: Giving Credit (Part 1)


Brigadier General Emory Upton.

From Eric Mink:

A previous two-part post (beginning here) took a look at the promotion of Emory Upton to the rank of brigadier general following his actions near Spotsylvania Court House. The legend of Upton and his May 10, 1864 attack goes beyond the recognition he received in the form of elevation of rank. The 6th Corps’ assault that afternoon has universally become known as “Upton’s Attack” and historians and battlefield guides have gone so far as to credit Upton with nearly every aspect of the attack’s planning. But just how much involvement did Upton really have in the conception and development of the assault that bears his name?

Assault Column – Whose Idea?

A commonly held interpretation surrounding the May 10, 1864 attack of the 6th Corps is that Colonel Upton developed the idea of attacking in a compact assault column – in other words, a reduction of the attacking formation’s front and stacking its regiments to create depth and power from behind. As the “Upton as lobbyist” interpretation goes, the young colonel had for some time recognized the folly of using linear formations for attacks against strong defensive positions and therefore advocated for the use of the assault column. This traditional interpretation implies that his views were so well-known, even to Army of the Potomac Headquarters, that on May 10 Generals George G. Meade and Ulysses S. Grant gave Upton the chance to prove himself. Although this interpretation establishes Upton as an easy protagonist in the attack story, it’s difficult to trace the origins of the storyline. A look through the writings of staff officers at the headquarters of both the Army of the Potomac and the 6th Corps fails to uncover any mention of Upton’s opinions on the matter. Postwar accounts of the fight by participants also don’t indicate that Upton had any influence on the decisions surrounding May 10. The first mention of Upton as a lobbyist for the assault column that could be located is in Bruce Catton’s A Stillness at Appomattox, the third volume in the author’s The Army of the Potomac trilogy and the recipient of the 1954 Pulitzer Prize for History.

Catton introduced Upton with a brief biographical sketch, in which he quotes a letter from the young colonel to his sister. The letter is critical of Union generalship and what Upton perceived as incompetency in ordering assaults against an entrenched enemy. This, along with a description of Upton’s successful November 1863 attack against a Confederate fortification at Rappahannock Station, helped set up the decision on May 10. On the Confederate position at the “Mule Shoe” of Spotsylvania, Catton wrote:

“Upton, in short, felt that he knew how to break through those Rebel entrenchments, and he spoke up about it, and on the afternoon of May 10 they gave him twelve picked infantry regiments, his own 121st New York among them, and told him to go ahead.” Catton, p 112

Furthermore, Catton inferred that not only did the idea of the attack originate with Upton, but the compact formation was also his idea.

“The obvious fact here – at least it was obvious to Upton – was that an assaulting column’s only hope was to get a solid mass of riflemen right on the parapet as quickly as possible…So Upton formed his men in four lines, three regiments side by side in each line…” Catton, p 113

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Edward Steere – Soldier of the Great War, National Park Service Historian, Author


From Eric Mink:

During the National Park Service Centennial last year, the park staff delved into a bit of research on our own history. We looked at how our predecessors laid the groundwork, both in infrastructure and in historical research, upon which we have benefited and continue to build. The park had the advantage of a strong cadre of historians who conducted some of the first solid research on the park’s battles and resources. Ralph Happel is a name known to most who have studied the Civil War activities around Fredericksburg, but there was also T. Sutton Jett, Branch Spalding, Hubert Gurney, just to name a few. For about six years in the late 1930s, the park benefited from having as its chief of historians Edward Steere, a man whose combined knowledge and skills as a journalist, a soldier, and a historian resulted in a report that became the first in-depth battle study of the 1864 Overland Campaigns first engagement. Steere’s The Wilderness Campaign remains a popular resource for students of the battle.

Young Turks - 1935

Edward Steere (far left) and other National Park Service historians on the Wilderness Battlefield in 1935. To Edward’s left are: T. Sutton Jett, Raleigh C. Taylor, Ralph Happel, and Branch Spalding.

Born in Los Angeles, California on April 21, 1889*, Edward Steere entered a military family. His father, Captain Henry Steere, participated in the Spanish-American War with the 1st Battalion California Heavy Artillery and then in the Philippine Insurrection with the 36th United States Volunteers. Captain Steere later pursued a career in education as both professor of military tactics and commandant of cadets at the Western Reserve University of Cleveland, Ohio, and even later in a similar role at the Shenandoah Valley Military Academy in Winchester, Virginia. Edward’s older sister Ruth married three times, each to an officer in the United States Army. Her first two husbands were medical officers, while her third husband, Colonel Reginald Heber Kelley, commanded the 116th United States Infantry during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in 1918. Edward’s younger brother John entered the United States Army and rose to the rank of colonel. Perhaps it was the military tradition, a sense of adventure, or even personal convictions about the war in Europe that led young Edward to leave the United States and enlist in the Canadian Army on September 23, 1914, at the age of 25. Steere joined “B” Battery, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and over the following four years he served with his unit in France, presumably taking part in all of its battles. His service record notes little, other than three instances in which he ran afoul of his superiors. The first involved “altering the duration of his watch,” the second punishment came for “using insubordinate language to his superior officer,” and the final instance involved “galloping a horse on a hard road.” Dismissal at the expiration of his service came on May 31, 1919, at which time Steere returned to the United States to pursue an education for a civilian career.

Steere’s college pursuits prepared him well for his future vocation as a historian. He attended the University of Texas and received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1924 and a master’s in history in 1929. After a stint writing for the Dallas Morning News and the Austin Statesman, Edward landed a job with the National Park Service, working out of the agency’s Washington, D.C. office. The War Department transferred its battlefields and military parks to the National Park Service in 1933, and around that time Steere joined the staff of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He arrived in Fredericksburg as an assistant historical technician, but within five years he rose to the position of “chief historian,” overseeing the park’s historical research and public programming. His largest contribution while stationed at Fredericksburg was his research on the Battle of the Wilderness. The result of that research has benefited historians for decades.

Steere - 1938c

Edward Steere – Fredericksburg Battlefield, 1938

Steere began his study of the Battle of the Wilderness shortly after arriving in Fredericksburg and finished both the research and writing of his manuscript in 1937. Steere’s “The Campaign of the Wilderness, May 2-7, 1864” was intended as an internal document to educate the park staff. Steere utilized the small park library, and with a few small exceptions, he relied entirely upon published sources, specifically the Official Records. Prior to his research, a truly analytical look at the Wilderness did not exist. Andrew Humphreys’ The Virginia Campaigns of ’64 and ’65: The Army of the Potomac and the Army of the James (1883) and Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness (1910) both represented studies written by participants, but each lacked the distance and analysis of a historian. Steere’s familiarity with the ground and his painstaking analysis of the source material resulted in a 650-page typed manuscript. It is likely that his manuscript would have remained on the park’s library shelf and out of sight from anyone other than park staff had it not been for an inquiry from soldier and publisher Lieutenant General Edward Stackpole, Jr. two decades later.

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Murder in Fredericksburg: The Legacy of a Tragedy (Part 4)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the fourth and final in a series exploring the details of the death of German shopkeeper Charles Miller’s brother George after an exchange in Charles’ shop with four Union soldiers on their way home from war in May 1865. The previous posts can be found here: Part One, A Darkness on Commerce St.; Part 2, Suspects and Scapegoats; and Part 3, Doctor Galland Takes the Stand.

Four soldiers of the Sixth Corps, Army of the Potomac, stood trial in late May and early June on charges of murdering a citizen of Fredericksburg. Beginning on June 1, 1865, a court martial convened to hear the case of Private William Irvin, Co. D, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers and Private Amos Fielding, Co. E, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers brought up on the charge that they did, “maliciously and unlawfully take the life of George Miller a Citizen of the City of Fredericksburg, Va.” Both pled not guilty.

The next trial convened just two days later, charging Private James Lynch, Co. A, 61st Pennsylvania Volunteers that he did, “unlawfully and maliciously aid and abet in taking the life of George Miller.” A fourth soldier, Private John Wilson, 67th Pennsylvania Volunteers, was brought to both trials, but charges were not specified against him.

A standout among the other witnesses, Doctor Galland, an African American camp servant and cook, offered pivotal testimony. His words refuted James Lynch’s testimony against John Wilson and identified Lynch as a suspicious individual along with the other men. The resulting verdict demonstrated that the courts gave validity to Galland’s testimony over Lynch’s—a remarkable decision in itself, to trust a black man’s word over a white man’s.

Modern view of tan historic building with two doors at a corner, one opening to Liberty Street and the other to William Street.

Modern view of Charles Miller’s shop at 600 Commerce Street (William Street). The brothers exited the door to the left, walked past where today stands the “Do Not Enter” sign, and continued down Commerce Street toward the river in search of a provost guard. Brick-wielding Union soldiers attacked them halfway through the next block. George Miller was found injured just 25 steps from the front door of his brother’s shop.

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Murder in Fredericksburg: Doctor Galland Takes the Stand (Part 3)


From Beth Parnicza:

This post is the third in a series exploring the details of the murder of a Fredericksburg shopkeeper’s brother, attacked on the night of May 25, 1865, by soldiers of the Army of the Potomac’s Sixth Corps on their way home from war. Part one can be found here, and part two is here.

WARNING: Graphic language from original documentation used in this post

As the court martial trial of James Lynch and William Irvin progressed, Lynch had set up fellow-soldier John Wilson as the man responsible for throwing bricks at shopkeeper Charles Milller and his brother George, fatally injuring George Miller. Wilson had not put up a convincing defense, and both the attacker and the details of that dark night’s events remained clouded in mystery, until the next witness—a source more likely to be overlooked than trusted—took the stand.

View of snow-covered Liberty Street with several men standing and a cart bearing three ladies. Some barreled goods rest at the edge of the street.

A turn of the century view of the Liberty Street side of 600 Commerce St., Charles Miller’s shop. Both the Miller brothers and their assailants exited the door at the far right and crossed Liberty Street. The attack occurred just a few yards from this location, down Commerce Street. Two doors opened to Liberty Street from Miller’s shop, and another opened on Commerce Street.

As Doctor Galland rose to testify, he must have presented both an unusual figure on the stand and a deep surprise to the soldiers on trial. Galland was an African American camp servant and cook in the employ of accused soldier Amos Fielding, and he stood in the unique position of being able to relate the words and actions of the accused in the immediate aftermath of the incident.

Like countless camp servants serving the Army of the Potomac, Galland’s background and future remain a mystery (but will hopefully manifest in enough detail for another post someday),and he held little to no status, perhaps a former slave escaping to freedom as contraband or a free man looking for work. However, as he was sworn in on June 2, 1865, Galland’s story had the power to clear a man’s name and reveal the threads of guilt among the accused soldiers. Through the words of his testimony, we perceive a man who was perhaps not well-educated but was courageous enough to speak of his experiences with clarity and determination.

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Morris Schaff’s Wilderness: Anticipating Future Battlefield Interpretation, 1910


from: Harrison

With the park having concluded sesquicentennial observances of the four battles within its historical bailiwick, I’d like to consider how those engaged the imagination once the guns fell silent. Readers of this blog may recall my interest in the literary aspects of early commentary on the fighting. What follows is adapted from a History at Sunset program I presented recently on supernatural imagery, used by some chroniclers of the Civil War generation in describing Chancellorsville, the Wilderness, and the vast tract of woodland encompassing both. 

I drew inspiration from Union veteran Morris Schaff’s The Battle of the Wilderness, published in 1910.  It’s the most unique history I’ve read of a Civil War battle. It’s also the first book to be devoted solely to the two-day clash of May 1864, not to be supplemented in that category until Edward Steere published The Wilderness Campaign half a century after Schaff’s volume appeared.

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Houghton-Mifflin’s advertising for the serialized version of Schaff’s book, Atlantic Monthly, March 1909.

Schaff’s publisher, Houghton-Mifflin of Boston and New York, had serialized the book in their magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, beginning in June 1909. Schaff’s study was thus distributed widely and essentially twice. (The publishers seemed delighted with its reception, inviting him to write an article-length sequel and running that in Atlantic in 1911.)

Readers across the country had this first-ever, book-length encounter with the Battle of the Wilderness in a profoundly strange atmosphere. Schaff’s text swerved back and forth from the conventional to the unconventional, from straightforward terrain- and tactics analysis to supernatural interventions. In 1911, a reviewer for The Nation spent several column-inches trying to finalize his thoughts about Schaff and concluded, “We applaud the writer who, while framing a military treatise, can at the same time make it a new ‘Alice in Wonderland.’” In this blog post, let’s consider the conventional and even “cutting-edge” aspects of The Battle of the Wilderness. These highlight, through contrast, the weird aspects (next post), as strange now as in 1910.

At the battle of the Wilderness, the 23-year-old Schaff served on the staff of Fifth Corps Commander Gouveneur K. Warren. Some of Schaff’s detailed descriptions of what he saw would become popular among later historians, especially his detailed, vivid recollection of Warren meeting with other staffers in the Lacy House, “Ellwood,” and urging them to reduce the casualty return for his corps.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished postwar structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

Ellwood and environs. For visitors to the Wilderness today, Morris Schaff is probably best known for his striking account of an episode in the Lacy house, “Ellwood,” involving a casualty tally and a brief but vivid description of one of its rooms. Virtually unknown is his ambitious effort to understand many other aspects of the battle. This entailed Schaff making at least one postwar visit, when a Mr. and Mrs. Jennings hosted him, possibly at a now-vanished structure that appears on a 1930’s map.

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Confederates on the Railroad Bridge: 150 Years Later, an Identification


From Eric Mink:

This post is adapted from an article I authored for Volume 10 (2011) of Fredericksburg History & Biography, an annual publication of the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust.

It is nearly impossible to open a book about Civil War Fredericksburg without seeing the photo of Confederate soldiers posing on the ruined railroad trestle along the Rappahannock River. The photo represents one of only two instances in which a Northern artist photographed as his subjects non-captive Confederate soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia in the field. (The other instance involved Confederates marching through Frederick, Maryland.) That alone makes it an unusual image, yet the ability to identify the previously anonymous soldiers makes this photo even more remarkable.

Landscape

The Union photographer captured this scene from the north bank of the Rappahannock River. The Confederate soldiers stand on the south bank with the river flowing between the artist and his subjects. They are on the literal front line of the war. This is a location that should be hostile, yet the Confederates don’t appear to pose a threat. Their casual pose and the absence of visible weapons suggest an almost friendly demeanor. We know that the site of the ruined railroad bridge was a place where the opposing pickets and outposts gathered to fraternize, exchanging newspapers as well as insults. (For an earlier discussion of this location, see John Hennessy’s post here.) When the photographer appeared at the bridge, we can assume some communication must have taken place between the cameraman and the Confederates. The relaxed gathering at the far end of the bridge suggests cooperation between the man behind the camera and his subjects.

Many of us have studied this image in great detail. We know its location. We can see in the distance the buildings, Willis Hill cemetery and defenses upon Marye’s Heights. We even know the name of the photographer – Captain Andrew J. Russell of the United States Military Railroads. (At least one historian has suggested that the photographer may have been Egbert Fowx, Russell’s mentor). What we have not known, however, are the identities of the figures on the far side of the river. We can’t help but wonder who these men are that posed so calmly for a Yankee cameraman along a boundary between the warring armies? To date, no diary or letter has been found, by either a Union or a Confederate soldier, that recalls what must have been an event worth chronicling, or at the very least worth mentioning.

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