Maps of the Wilderness – Bradley M. Gottfried

An atlas of the wilderness campaign, including all Cavalry operations, may 2-6 1864

This is the latest of the Savas-Beatie series of atlases on Civil War campaigns.  Each page has a map on the right page and text on the left explaining the map. In the thick of the battle the time intervals per page can be as short as 15 minutes, but are usually about an hour.  Each part of the field has its own connected set of pages so there is a minimum of mental scene switching.

The text is contains a good amount of tactical detail, but is by its nature more of an overview of the battle than a more in-depth study is.  The strength of the book is that it does give the tactical details and maps that usually are described in a sentence or so with a map every chapter or so.  In that way it is a good counterpoint to those other books.

The battle itself is the start of the Overland Campaign, the first where Grant met Lee in the field.  The Army of the Potomac had been overmatched by Lees’ Army in part due to its own faltering leadership.  This fact was compounded by fact that it had to fight on Lee’s turf, and being so close to the capital it was both under scrutiny and was tempted to play politics itself.  It isn’t a coincidence that the two times Lee invaded the North and there was a clear purpose for the Army it fought much better and turned him back with a drubbing.

The Overland Campaign would be a strategic defeat for Lee, ending with him being pinned against the vital rail lines protecting the capital for the winter, then routed out of them and forced to surrender.  Thus it starts the period where Confederate history starts to lose interest in the battles and shade into vagueness.and excuses.  A recent study shows that by examining the newspapers of the time there is evidence that Lee received more reinforcements and lost more men in all these battles than estimated previously.

The Army of the Potomac had just been reorganized by Meade in the fall because the small corps previously in use were hard to manage and required many commanders, which could not be found due to battlefield losses.  Complicating matters was the fact that Confederate corps were larger than Union due to the way regiments were recruited, so it required multiple Union Corps to contend with a Confederate one.

However, in retrospect the new size of the Union Corps was probably too large, compounded by the propensity of the high command to attach and reattach divisions from place to place in battle.  Repeatedly the Union found its corps commanders unable to handle their large units, most having doubled in size or more since their last battle.  As the campaign went on this tended to be ‘solved’ by losses and veterans going home, thus making the units more in line with what commanders were used to.

The main change in this battle was that at the top, Grant had no reluctance to engage the Confederates when encountered.  Lee, despite what historians claim for him, did not realize this as his usual rush to contact on two widely separated roads put him in an embarrassing position when Grant attacked his forces, pinning them in place.  Meanwhile, an entire Union division was in-between the two, able to pitch into the  flank or rear of either.  Sadly for the union, the high command did not realize this and the forces retired later to the main line.  Later attempts to hit this wide gap from the front never quite managed to strike home.

A second crisis happened at the start of the second day of the battle.  The southern prong of Lee’s army had been hard pressed at nightfall.  Lee refused to pull the men back to another position claiming that his last corps, Longstreet’s, would arrive before the Union would attack.  Since they had marched 32 miles and were still 15 miles off, this shows that he did not consider a dawn attack a possibility.  Longstreet did arrive at 6 AM, but only after Hancock had routed Hill’s corps and driven them back nearly a mile.  Only a stellar performance by Longstreet and the confusion of the attack column allowed the situation to be stabilized and kept his army from being driven west away from the capital.  This would not be the last time in this campaign that Lee avoided disaster by luck and the Army of the Potomac’s fumbling rather than by his own decisions.  By the next spring, the middle leadership of the Union Army had absorbed Grant’s attitude and become much more deft, and the result was a series of crushing defeats and eventual surrender.

Grant, as supervisor of Meade’s army, played a more limited role in tactical issues than he would later.  He loses some points for confusing the command structure by dispatching divisions all over the field outside of their chain of command.  This added to the hesitantness of the remaining troops who lacked reserves, and to the confusion of the arriving troops and the burden of the other corps commander.  While you might expect poor commanders like Burnside to have problems, all the others also did, even veterans like Hancock and Sedgwick.

Historians have been hesitant to call this battle what it was, a decided Union victory. Unlike most other battles in the East, even Union victories, there was no long rebuilding pause and no change in policy by the army commander.  Losses were proportionally even (or by modern research, higher for the South), and losses aren’t the point.  Grant’s objective was to press Lee continually, and he continued to do so.  Lee’s objective was to disrupt this campaign and gain time for the South, and he failed to do so.

Northern Men with Southern Loyalties – Michael Todd Landis

The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis

This book is a great complement to the previous book Slave Power.  That book describes the start of the process, while this book details the final decade as the Democratic Party failed to meet the challenge of how to reconcile the power of the slaveholding bloc in national politics with the increasing reluctance of the northern voter to accept the situation.

The poster child of the 1850s rift is the “doughface”, a term that originated in a diatribe of a southerner over how easy it was to manipulate northern politicians.  When it begins to be a term used by your own voters, you have an image problem.

The book is a short, but detailed look at the inner workings of the 1850s Democratic Party, by then the one national based party.  As the dominant force, it had the fate of the nation in its hand, and the result was continual sectional crisis, division, a virtual civil war in Kansas, and eventually the breakup of its own party and true national warfare.

The inner workings of the Democratic Party were the essential forces causing the problem, not outside agitation or other forces.  This book exposes that in a short and clear way.  No party ever had such a dominating position in history, and yet within a decade it had all crumbed to dust.

I’ll be reading this one again, like I do America in 1857.by Kenneth Stamp.as views into political collapse.

 

The Slave Power — Leonard L. Richards

The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860

I continue to try and catch up to the pile of books read over the last few years waiting for recap, with a little success.  I find if I wait too long, I get a little vague on my impressions, or am tempted to read it all again.

This is one of the “read again” group, even though it hasn’t sat on the pile for as long as some others.  It is another in the cluster of books I read in sequence on ante-bellum politics.  The American Civil War is a great interest to me, although the blogs here don’t reflect that as much as writing in the field has tapered off slightly.

So the drift to all-out war is of great interest, as any sensible person would need to wonder what failures led to the all out cataclysm of the war.  And failures there were – one side lost its entire basis for political contention and was physically devastated, while the “winners” paid a huge price in wealth and lives.

This short but information packed book describes the continuing huge influence of the slave power bloc in the young country from the very start, and how it distorted politics during the entire time.  Picking up on the term that the young Republican Party used for them at the climax of their influence in the 1850s, he calls it “the Slave Power”.  And rather than dismissing it as a conspiracy theory of the politicians of the time, he takes it as a real and important factor.  It is almost always a good idea to assume that actors in the past actually knew what they were talking about rather than the reverse.

He goes all the way back to the initial “Three Fifths Compromise” debate in the development of the Constitution.  Today, this is usually totally characterized as “those racists saying that blacks were only 3/5 of a person”.  If only.  Actually, blacks were considered no fifths.  Rather, their owners got a political bonus for owning slaves without any cost.

Before this book, I was under the impression that the quid-pro-quo the rest of the nation was supposed to get was additional taxes from the slaveholders under the direct taxation principle.  The government would assess the states based off of the representation, and thus the slaveholding states would pay more per capita.  So at least both sides were honestly intending to exchange something.

As it happens, however, direct taxation never took off and other means that applied evenly per head such as import and export tariffs and assessments dominated, so the South got extra representation for nothing.  This book, however, shows that even at the time there was significant opposition to the deal, because they knew that direct taxes would never fly politically.  So rather than a bargain that went sour, it was instead a power play from the start, with a fig leaf of cover.

The effect of this was huge, as these extra seats were a large lump of political power at the federal level, and the federal spoils system could and did put these men in control of money that affected every corner of the country.  Every postman in the entire country owed his job to the party in power, and more often than not this party depended on the slaveowning bloc for its victory.

To make matters worse, other issues came and went, and thus advocates would in other states get turned out of office more frequently.  Slave holding never went out of style, so the seniority system at the federal, and the political party level all increasingly favored the influence of southern leaders.  Even the most northern politician had to kowtow to them, and if they wandered too far the hammer of political purges could and did destroy them,

This would have a huge distorting effect on the democracy.  The ideal is that a representative, or senator, would owe his job primarily to his own voters in his own district. Even the views of his opponents in his district would be of some interest, as then he could undercut future political battles before they began.

But if men instead owed huge debts to out-of-state power brokers, then at some level they have to pay that back in votes, votes that oppose those of their own region. And as this effect grew, the division of the parties outside the South grew as voters tried to call them to account.  Factions beholden to the South warred with opponents to win control of State parties, again at the cost of their own constituents.

Finally, the use of this power broke loose – first with a sectional party that owed nothing to the South, and then with the northern Democrats having to break with the South in order to survive the wrath of northern voters increasingly angry at the domination.  The Southern bloc then decided that war was preferable to a political solution without them as a dominant force.  It turns out they were wrong.

An excellent book full of new insights on the politics of the US.

 

 

Valley Thunder – Charles R. Knight

The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864

This is another short history, this time by Savas-Beattie publishing.  But rather than being an obscure battle, this is a new retelling of a battle and campaign that probably gets written about more than it deserves from a military sense.

In the start of Grant’s 1864 campaign in Virginia, he set the satellite forces about the state to advance to occupy the forces the Confederates had opposing them and keep them from reinforcing Lee.  In the end, these aims all failed for the North, mostly due to these forces being led by high ranked generals shunted off to these unimportant regions to keep them away from the main army,

Here, the man in question was Franz Sigel, a German born officer who fought in the early campaigns in Missouri in 1861 with mixed success, and then was moved east and never had mixed success again.  Grant was hoping that Sigel would watch while the more talented General Ord took command of the advancing forces.  Sigel, however, wanted to lead the attack and his political importance with the German citizens was too much to overrule him.

The military moves were simple.  Sigel moved south.  The rebel general Breckinridge scrambled to collect troops to face him, most notably including the student militia troops of Virginia Military Institute.  The two armies met north of town, in a narrow location that made the best of the inferior numbers of the Confederates.  That, and the inertness of Sigel led to his troops being shot up piece by piece.  Eventually after being worked on the Confederates drove them out and they retreated North.

Even so, at a point of the battle Breckinridge needed to commit the VMI troops to the battle, and in the final charge to win the day they famously took a battery.  Hence the battle being kept alive in VMI, and overall Southern memory,

The writing has the appropriate level of detail for such a battle.  It doesn’t overdwell on it, or skip little incidents.One charming note about the book is the annotation on one map of the location of the author’s house.  I haven’t seen that before.

The battle did get Sigel fired, and Breckinridge and most of his men sent on to join Lee.  Within a month or so, a second attempt by General Hunter overran the Valley, so there was little impact of this battle on “saving the Valley”.   Hunter himself would be driven off in June and July by Early, and finally Grant would send Sheridan and overwhelming force to put paid to the military importance of the Valley by fall.

This is a great updated treatment of the battle and campaign, even if it isn’t that important of one.

 

 

The Siege of Lexington, Missouri – Larry Wood

The Battle of the Hemp Bales, 1861

This little volume is another in the History Press’ Civil War Sesquicentennial series.  Rather than produce yet another book on the major battles, or even one on a small element of such a battle, the series covers less known battles or campaigns so as to increase the coverage in print of these lesser known aspects of the war.  The smaller format works to add a little meat past what you get from flyers from military parts, say, And there are plenty of local historians that can write, or contribute to such a book.

At the start of the American Civil War both sides seemed hesitant to get the ball rolling.  In the east, the Union defeat at Bull Run put an end to serious action.  The state of Kentucky’s quixotic attempt at neutrality was convenient to both governments who were scrambling to raise enough forces to even cover the frontier.  That left the final border state of Missouri open for serious action, and unlike the rest of the country there was leadership on the Northern side that provided action.

Fiery Nathaniel Lyon was in charge, and from the initial move of secretly carrying off the armory’s weapons to Illinois was showing that he was serious about acting.  One of the unintentional comedies of the period was the outrage of the local Southern sympathizers that he stole the guns before they could raise a mob to do so themselves, as happened in most of the rebel states.

Lyon moved out to crush the military forces in the southwest part of the state, near Springfield.  He had bit off more than he could chew, as the troops from Missouri and other states that could be gathered began to seriously outnumber him.  The lack of decent communication to the east, and a new district commander who was not a man of action meant that reinforcements weren’t coming soon.  Lyon, worried about retiring, decided to attack instead to catch the raw troops napping.  While it was initially successful, the over bold plan failed, and the superior numbers won the day,  Lyon himself was killed.

After the victory, the winners were in a bit of a quandary themselves.  The army consisted of two elements:  official Confederate troops dispatched from Arkansas and beyond, and a southern sympathetic “Missouri State Guard” under local general Stirling Price.  These forces were not under the orders of the CSA, as the breakaway government of the state had not seceded or joined the Confederacy at this time.

The leader of the CSA troops was not interested in risking his troops in any adventures into other parts of the state.  Opposing this, the breakway legislature wanted to increase its holdings from a nominal part of the Ozark hill country while it had an advantage. These aims were not reconcilable, so the army broke up and the Missouri State Guard was left to act alone.

Far to the north, on the Missouri river, is the town of Lexington.  There was an outpost of Union troops holding the town along the line of communication to Union sympathetic regions in Kansas.  The natives of the area were solidly southern in sympathies, as this is the slave holding belt in the state.  Supplies would also be easier to obtain than in the poorer sections they were in.  The decision was made to take that town and win a victory.

By mid September they were on the march and approaching the town.  The Union forces barricaded themselves into buildings in and around the grounds of the Masonic college north of town, and looked to be a nasty opponent.  So far, the inexperience of the troops had proven no bar to both sides fighting hard and long.

Then someone (who is disputed) came up with the idea of using hemp bales from around the town to use as protection.  These large cylinders of cut plant matter would stop a bullet, and if soaked in water would not burn.  Also, if tipped on their side they could be easily rolled by the men behind into new positions, closer to the defenders.  The creeping walls of hemp were the signal item that made this little battle notable at the time and now.

With this protection, the defenders lost the advantage of being able to shoot down the attackers faster, and the numbers began to tell.  Soon the defenders had to give up, and Price and his men had the victory and the fame.

Long term, of course, this could not be sustained.  Even the slaveholding Missourians were doubtful about long term prospects, both from sentiment and from the very practical realization that troops coming from Kansas and upriver from the rest of the country would make holding the area impossible.  The integration of the state forces with the CSA in the winter made the defense of the state much lower in priority, and the State Guard and Price would be diverted to the defense of Mississippi for the rest of the war.

Another great entry into this series that I need to get more of.

 

 

The Conquering Tide – Ian W. Toll

The War in the Pacific Islands, 1942-1944

This is the second volume in a projected trilogy on WWII in the Pacific.  It follows his book “Pacific Crucible” which deals with the early stages of the war – primarily the battles of Coral Sea and Midway.  This book goes from the Guadalcanal invasion to 1944 and the conquest of Saipan.  This would allow the start of the B29 strategic bombing offensive against Japan itself to begin.

This period is the ‘swing period’ of the war.  The Japanese started with a significant advantage in trained pilots and the initiative that let them attack peacetime garrisons and weak and unprepared foes.  After a few months, the Allies started to get their bearings and start to be able to contest the Japanese fleet, especially when divided.  The battle of Midway ended the period where the Japanese could realistically continue expanding in the Pacific, but the US still needed time to collect their forces, get them into the battle.

That is the period discussed in this book – the US seizure of Guadalcanal was risky, as the Japanese could strike hard at the protecting naval forces and the troops, but the air base on the island increasingly took its toll on the Japanese ships and planes.  Surface actions came frequenty, from the disaster at Savo to others that were more even or even victories.  But regardless, the Japanese could not push the US away, and every month brought the arrival of massive US naval forces closer.

The US Navy (with some significant Commonwealth help, especially the Australians) needed time to gain experience meeting the Japanese, and took their lumps.  But every Japanese ship damaged or lost was gone for good, while the US kept getting more ships.

Finally, the US forced the Japanese out of the Solomons, and then began the Central Pacific offensives at Tarawa, Kwajalein and finally Saipan.  By this point, the Japanese Navy is hardly a threat to the assembled fleets – the latest battle was the famed “Marianas Turkey Shoot” where the air force was crushed and the newest Japanese carrier blew itself up from fuel fumes more than US bombs or torpedoes.

The book is big enough to give a more thorough treatment of the campaigns than standard one volume histories.  It has a little of the view of the Japanese side, but it is more the US view of the war than trying to show what both sides were doing equivalently.  Hopefully the third volume continues at this detail rather than slide off when the war gets totally one-sided as often happens.  I look forward to the third volume with some interest, as I am reading more about this part of the war these days.

Confederate Reckoning – Stephanie McCurry

Power and Politics in the Civil War South

I was very afraid of this book when reading the preface.  There was quite a bit of modern buzzwords about feminist theory and gender politics.  I’ve been burned before by books on even Ancient history suddenly being tarred by modern political posturing and trying to fit the more complicated values of the past into a simplistic framework to fit modern theories.  Marxist historians used to be especially prone to this.  Real life is a lot more complex, and a good history needs to remember that.

It did not take long to show that my fears were groundless, and that this is one of the most valuable corrective histories I’ve come across on the Civil War.  The author starts out with a direct expression of the nature of the Confederate Experiment – that the founders of the CSA intended to produce a Republic for White Men, and founded on a bedrock institution of Slavery.  This has been evaded for various reasons by the ex-Confederates after the war and by historians since.

The first case study is an examination of the secession campaigns in 1860.  The speeches of pro-secession speakers was avowedly based on fears of amalgamation between the races, claiming that Lincoln was elected by black votes.  The campaigns, even in South Carolina, featured armed bullies showing up at meetings to intimidate loyalists. Even there tensions between the upper class and lesser folk had to be papered over to gain the point.  Other states, like Georgia, were likely only won by fraud.  Even the official result of 54 percent for secession is hardly a mandate.  One of the first acts of the new independent Georgia was to define a treason statute giving the death penalty for allegiance to the Union.

In theory, women had no part of this political action, as their sphere was defined to be the home.  However, soon imperfections in this view were evident.  When resistance to the Confederate state began, there were serious questions if a woman, as not really a citizen, could be treasonous.  In practice, though, these mothers and wives of disloyal men were routinely harrassed, sometimes to the point of torture to get information.

The separation of women from the state continued to break down as the war continued.  As more and more men were pulled into service, and killed there, the problem of relief for soldiers’ wives became acute.  The CSA government was built as a war-making device, and to suddenly have to divert significant resources to nationwide welfare programs was a constant distraction.  And to lobby to get these claims, women had to group and lobby from a local to national level.

The strain became even worse with the bread riots led by women in the late war period. As prices rose, the food kept by the government or by speculators became a matter of resentment and finally, mobs of women took matters into hand and looted shops and warehouses. While the lawlessness was troubling, the government response was conflicted since the claim that women were not being sheltered from want was undeniable.

The issue of slaves became a problem too, for similar reasons.  The conventional excuse for slavery was that slaves, like children, were not responsible enough on their own.  Thus slave relations were a personal issue between master and slave, and not a government matter.  And again, slaves were purposely not part of the Confederate State.

So the war at once started to disrupt this pattern.  Slaves would flee to, or inform US forces about military matters.  If caught, masters usually resisted severe punishment. As the war continued, more white men left slaveholding regions so actual enforcement became difficult and counterproductive.  Slaves often left and lived off in woods for months at a time.  Owners resisted calls to divert slaves to the military for labor – partly out of fear they might be mistreated, partly out of fear they might lose them entirely.

As the end grew closer, the disjunction between the image of slaves and the reality grew more apparent.  Overt violence was not common, but reports of a kind of watchful waiting that the owners found unsettling were common.  And if the masters fled the plantation, slaves routinely took over and looted them.  This happened to Jefferson Davis and his brother themselves.

The final rock that broke the image was the fight over slave soldiers.  In the end, the overt need for more soldiers to preserve the nation could not quite prevail over the idea that each master could keep control over his own slaves.

Even to someone like me, that has read hundreds to thousands of Civil War books and articles, this book showed me something new and added depth to matters I already knew from the rare mentions in other books.  This will definitely stay on the shelf with the other important books in my collection.

With Musket and Tomahawk Volume II – Michael O. Logusz

The Mohawk Valley Campaign in the Wilderness War of 1777

In a post on Volume I of this series on the American Revolution’s 1777 campaign in New York State, I discuss the overall strategy for this year.  The British attempted to bring the revolt to and end by subduing New York state with a three pronged invasion from north, south, and west.  This volume is on the invasion from the west, up the Mohawk valley towards Albany.

Again, initial troubles

General Barry St. Leger would lead the attack with about 500 regular soldiers and a large force of Indians.The first step was to collect the Indian forces, and there was trouble. In London, the idea was that you could call them up like regular forces.  In the wilderness of the Great Lakes, this wasn’t so easy.  A huge meeting was held on the shores of Lake Ontario, and St, Leger was met with some hostility, as previous English promises had not been met and joining this expedition would be breaking their own word given to the Patriot colonists to not attack the settlements.  New and extensive promises had to be given, and the Indians were assured that the fighting would be easy and the loot rich.

Dealing with Indian allies was never easy, and many of the British on the scene were skeptical of their usefulness on an extended campaign.  Again, things looked much easier on paper than they did on the ground, hundreds of miles from any substantial settlement.

The Gloves are Off

This backwoods war was considerably nastier than you often get to hear. Both sides had bounties for scalps, and both sides scalped, including colonial settlers and regular British units.  And they didn’t just scalp Indians.  The book relates a lot of stories about scalping and butchery in battles and outside of battles.

St. Leger also sent parties out to attack concentrations of Patriot settlements outside the Mohawk valley with the usual atrocities.

Fort Stanwix

This fort was the first obstacle. It was held by a Patriot garrison, who decided to hold out to the last, since the chances after a surrender would be poor indeed.  Here the terror policy of the English army backfired, as their army had no ability to mount a real siege and could not afford an assault.  A blockade was begun.

Oriskany and the raid on St. Leger’s Camp

General Herkimer, at Fort Dayton to the east heard about the attack on Fort Stanwix and organized a relief army.  When St. Leger was informed of its approach, he sent about 800 troops, mostly Indians, to ambush it.  Initially the ambush worked well, but the Patriot army did not dissolve and soon the two forces were locked in a bloody struggle with gun and tomahawk, hand to hand.  Losses for both sides mounted.  Again, the Patriots knew that fleeing or surrendering would lead to death and they fought with desperation.

Meanwhile, the garrison of Fort Stanwix had been notified by a scout of Herkimer’s approach, very late since he had been pinned down outside the fort by Loyalist troops. Taking stock, and hearing the firing for Oriskany the commander decided to sortie from the fort and attack the few troops left around the Fort.  Twenty one wagon loads of supplies were taken into the Fort with no losses.

As time went on at Oriskany, the Patriots collected themselves and delivered more punishment to their attackers, but they had suffered too much to move forward.  They retired back towards their base.

End of the Siege

Although the siege of Stanwix continued, things were falling apart for St. Leger.  His supplies were short, his Indian allies were deserting or hostile at the losses they had suffered, and a new relief expedition would be coming.  When news of it did come, mostly a bluff run by General Benedict Arnold passed along through friendly Indians, St, Leger decided to fall back. The attempt to fall back went to pieces.  The disgruntled Indians, giving liquor to make them tractable, instead attacked the regular troops and looted supplies and a small battle was fought.  The Indian allies vanished, and the rest of the army went to pieces, abandoning its equipment and only a few stragglers made it back to Lake Ontario.  Arnold and many troops from the area went back to the Hudson to face Burgoyne at Saratoga.

Aftermath

Destroying this force was a major confirmation that Patriot forces were tough opponents in the war, to be confirmed at Saratoga a little later.  It is hard to see what good could have come in a military sense from St. Leger’s invasion – it was too weak to do much more than burn and kill but too strong to fan out and do that effectively.  Even had the first fort fell, the forces collected around Albany would have forced it away sooner or later, with more destruction than it caused in history. Its legacy can be little more than the numerous atrocities it spread across Western New York.

Engineering Victory – Justin S. Solonick

The Union Siege of Vicksburg

There are a lot of books on the campaign of Vicksburg, and the battles around Vicksburg.  I even know of one that discusses the geology of the region and its impact on the campaign.  This is the first that concentrates on the Siege as a siege, rather than a battle.

The purpose of a formal siege as understood by a trained 19th century military man, is to get the army close enough to the works to batter down the walls and works, provide a sheltered path for troops to launch an assault that will carry the fort.  In standard military rules, the defenders would then give up and surrender at this point and save the risk of an assault.

In my readings as a young adult, I had always gotten the impression that the defenders gave up a little early to get terms on the 4th of July.  When I visited the place, though, I was impressed to see an approach trench on the north of the town moving straight up a very steep hill to nearly the top, marked by a sign stating that this was the Union position on July 4.  They were close indeed!

The picture below is that same approach trench – you can see the scar going up toward the Confederate line at the top of the hill..

The Union Army really had not intended to besiege the place, and so did not have any prepared tools and guns ready. Also, the Western army had few trained engineers, who normally direct almost every operation – one count says there were four. And this position was miles and miles across.  But one thing Union armies, especially the Western ones could do was improvise.

The first method used to get engineers was to dragoon any civilian engineer in the ranks and put them to work directing operations. Also, West Point officers had some engineering training.  One commissary officer, somewhat overweight complained that he could best be used as a sap roller!  A sap roller was a round mass of branches and reeds used to create a bullet-resistant shield in front of a trench heading forward to a position.

So while at first the knowledge was concentrated in a few, circumstances required training to be spread down to the rank and file.  While this caused some initial problems, later on the engineers found that it made more work possible since they could delegate to the entire army than to just a few engineering troops available. And the troops were willing enough once they got the idea.  There was an incident where General William T. Sherman was riding by and saw a detail of about 100 men idle.  Asking what was up, the officer in charge showed him an order to make 50 gabions and 50 fascines. The officer then said the unit was only a year old and had never been in siege work before.  Sherman got down from his horse, asked for an axe and personally started cutting down small trees and driving them into the earth to make a gabion.  This is like a large bottomless woven basket, which could be carried to a position, hammered into the ground and filled with earth to make a shotproof wall quickly.  Sherman then cut grapevines and began personally weaving them to form the walls.  After this was well begun, the began binding straight cane stems into bundles – fascines. These have a number of uses – bracing dirt walls, or tossing in a trench to fill it in quickly in an attack. By the time Sherman left, those men knew how to make fascines and gabions, if not the French names.

The author’s theory is that this is the last classic siege – the enemy surrounded, parallel trenches set up and approach trenches set up close for a final assault. It was modified somewhat for the changes in military technology and the terrain. Two traditional mines were dug and a part of the defenses blown up.  Other sieges in the Civil War, like Petersburg and Atlanta, did not surround the city at any time, or create approach trenches.

This book puts a new, complementary spin on this important campaign.

 

With Musket and Tomahawk Volume I – Michael O. Logusz

The Saratoga Campaign and the Wilderness War of 1777

The Saratoga Campaign was supposed to be the finishing stroke to crush the Rebellion of the American Colonies. After the retirement from Boston, the reinforced British returned and took New York City, nearly destroying Washington’s army multiple times in the process. Now, this success was to lead to a grand campaign to cut off the New England colonies and isolate them by a three pronged invasion of inland New York from Canada and New York City. It looked nice on paper, anyway.

And usually, studies remain at this elevated, paper level. This book, and the second volume of a three part series, go beyond that to put you in the realities of 18th century life and warfare in the colonies better than any other I have read.

The first reality is that the area to be traversed was a true wilderness that few Europeans had any idea about.  Inland travel was virtually impossible away from the few tracks and rivers.  Scouts could move well, but wagons and bulk traffic was virtually impossible.  So the idea that you needed to occupy this hinterland to ‘cut off’ New England was absurd. This traffic, if any, probably went by sea or by roads much closer to New York City than Albany and points north.  And putting a few thousand men in Albany wasn’t going to cut off the tracks for more limited communication such as messages and couriers.

The next issue was that of moving armies through the land.  Europe was trying to limit the impact of wars on civilians since the horrors of the 30 Years War, but even so imagine yourself on a tiny farm in the wilderness when a military unit of a few hundred men show up looking for a meal, or even more supplies. Even if they don’t lose control and shoot you and your family and burn the farm, the loss of what little food reserves were needed for selling for supplies or keeping you alive in the winter would often be ruinous.  The other factor was that both of the armies moving from Canada were going to make heavy use of Indians as scouts and even as a large part of the invading forces.  Indians on the warpath were going to generate a large number of atrocities. It was how they made war.

Not that the British weren’t counting on this terror factor in hopes of cowing the colonists. However, with the Indians not discriminating between loyal settlers and rebels, there wasn’t a lot of profit in staying loyal. so the effect ran to increase the bitterness towards England overall.  And during the year a woman, Jane McCrea, who was engaged to an officer fighting with Burgoyne, was killed by Indians and was made a symbol for the rebels and a reason for dissidents in the home country to oppose the war.

Initial Missteps

The first step in the plan going wrong was that Gen. Howe in New York wasn’t very interested in moving inland.  He wanted to use his naval forces and army to descend on the Rebel capital in Philadelphia.  And so he did, leaving the third prong moving north up the Hudson very weak. It was really now a support force, likely unable to act alone if something happened to the other two forces.

The northern forces had issues too – having fewer men than planned and being short of transportation.

Burgoyne Moves South

Volume I follows the northern invasion directly south from Canada.  The route was over Lake Champlain and the road beside it.  This let most of the heavy supplies travel in boats. At the south end of the lake as Fort Ticonderoga, a rebel stronghold. Burgoyne reached this fort and after a poorly conducted defense it fell, and the Patriots retired south, harassed by Indian scouts.  It was now early July.

Now, in the middle of the wilderness the real world began to take hold.  The original plan was to move up a river to Lake George, which ended up very close to the Hudson River. Now that he was on the scene, this river was little more than a rocky creek, and the other lake was 200 feet higher than Lake Champlain and the trail was small and nearly vertical. The river was vertical…there as a waterfall between Lake George and the river.

There were roads heading south, but no road heading for the Hudson.  Burgoyne decided to stay in this district and build a road to the Hudson, calling back for horses and wagons to Canada.  This took about a month, while Loyalist forces collected ahead of him.

Bennington

While collecting himself for a final advance toward Albany, Burgoyne heard that there was a supply depot in Bennington, Vermont.  A force of about 800 men including some 150 British loyal colonists went off to try and collect them.  However, this was also where John Stark was collecting Patriot forces and he outnumbered this column.  The ensuing battle was a disaster, with most of the column being killed or captured.  Any loyalist men caught was killed by the army, or by angry Patriot civilians.  This was in no way a clean war. In this blow about 10 percent of Burgoyne’s force was lost.

Raid of Fort Ticonderoga

As Burgoyne moved off down the Hudson, Patriot forces attacked Ticonderoga in his rear and destroyed the supplies and boats there.  Burgoyne’s supply line north was now almost cut off.

saratoga

With this news, Burgoyne had to break through the superior Patriot army fortified at Saratoga on the Hudson.  Beyond that was Albany, and a possible linkup with New York City.  There were several engagements there, which you could argue might be tactical victories but the strategic position was the same after each.  The Patriot army blocked the road south, it was being reinforced, and each battle cost the English men, officers, and supplies that could not be replenished.  Eventually Burgoyne had no choice but to surrender his force.

New York Starves

New York City, cut off from its agricultural supplies and stuffed with a garrison and numerous loyalist refugees, would be very short of supplies for the forseeable future. The inland areas, ravaged by war, would not be a lot better off themselves this year.

A final incident

The author relates a story where a group of retreating British soldiers were spotted by Captain Allen and some scouts. However, there was a black woman and baby along with the group.  It was common knowledge that blacks found by British soldiers, slave or free were taken and sold in Canada as slaves.

Allen intercepted the group, and found that the woman was Dinah Mattis, a domestic slave.  She was removed from her captors and sent to Vermont, where she and her baby were given papers as free citizens.

Overview

This book moves easily between the small personal details and the big picture views that somehow get left out of most descriptions of the campaigns.  Even the views of the impact on blacks, slaves, and women does not descend into political correctness but actually shows the complexity of the life in the wilderness.  From a “witch woman” executing prisoners to Jane McCrea and Dinah Mattis, its a nasty and complex world that we don’t often hear about.