Civil War Institute 2014 Day One

The first day of the 2014 Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College is in the books.  Pete Carmichael gave the welcoming remarks and introduced four public historians who were the recipients of the first D. Scott Hartwig scholarships to the CWI Conference.  Scott Hartwig then spoke for a few minutes about the appreciation he has for academics like Pete who engage with the public and about the importance of public historians.  Then it was on to the conference proper.

The first lecture was by Brian Matthew Jordan.  Brian gave us a very eloquent overview of the Civil War in 1864.  1864, he told us, wasn’t simply a story of settled scores or political victory assured.  It was a year that was riddled with uncertainty and punctuated with fear.  For the Federals, nothing had been more reassuring than Ulysses S. Grant’s arrival in Washington, DC.  Grant determined that confederate forces could no longer be allowed to shift forces between theaters and make use of their interior lines.  To the Federals, Grant’s grand strategy augured victory at last.  Grant’s plan was to inaugurate five simultaneous offensives, three in the East and two in the West.  The first of these would be George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac striking against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.  Franz Sigel would take his 10,000 men up the Shenandoah Valley to link with William W. Averell and George Crook in Southwest Virginia.  Benjamin Butler would move with 40,000 men up to Bermuda Hundred.  William T. Sherman and his 100,000 men would operate in Georgia against Joseph E. Johnston and the Army of Tennessee, while Nathaniel Banks, Grant wished, would strike against Mobile.

Almost immediately, three of these came to grief.  Sigel was defeated by John C. Breckinridge at the battle of New Market.  Ben Butler was bottled up at Bermuda Hundred by Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, and Banks, busy with the Red River Campaign, never went against Mobile.  In the East, even though Grant didn’t want to fight in the Wilderness, Robert E. Lee saw to it that the Federals would have to fight in that thicket one more time.  And in Georgia, Joe Johnston skillfully delayed Sherman’s advances by taking up one strong position after another.  The Wilderness was a horrific battle, made more so when firing from muskets set the forest on fire, trapping wounded men in the no-man’s land between the lines.  The slugfest at Spotsylvania led to 7,000 Federal casualties and 5,000 confederate casualties and both sides stubbornly clung to their positions until Grant maneuvered by Lee’s right flank to the North Anna, where Lee took up a brilliant V-shaped formation with its apex at Ox Ford, but the decisive battle the ailing Lee yearned for eluded him.  Grant moved back north of the North Anna River and then looped around to the Totopotomoy Creek, and then it was on to Cold Harbor.  Grant was running out of room to maneuver, and he was running out of time.  The Republican convention was due to open on June 7, and Lincoln had significant opposition to his renomination within the Republican Party.  The Republican strategists decided to frame the political fight as a stark choice between treason and loyalty.  They went so far as to nominate Lincoln not as a Republican but as a member of the Union Party.  The Lincoln administration found it expedient to give furloughs to soldiers from key states to allow them to go home to vote.

The June 3 attacks on Cold Harbor resulted in 7,000 Union casualties, though not in 20 minutes but rather for the whole day.  We ask the question of how it could have happened.  Surely the generals knew that charging against fortified positions resulted in massive casualties.  Grant saw the Rebels didn’t come out from behind their entrenchments and thought they were demoralized.  Playing into that was the unspoken hope that with one more charge the Rebels would be beaten and the madness would be over.

Sherman wasn’t going much better.  Battles from New Hope Church to Pickett’s Mill were known as the Hell Hole Battles.  It culminated in a failed three-prong assault on Johnston at Kennesaw Mountain.  The Union defeat. though, prompted more grumbling in Richmond than in Washington, due to Johnston’s policy of retreating.  This led to Johnston’s replacement by John Bell Hood, a far more aggressive general.

After a summer of stalemate, though, everything seemed to change.  It began on August 5 with Admiral David G. Farragut’s capture of Mobile Bay.  Philip H. Sheridan took over in the Shenandoah Valley and eliminated it as a confederate asset.  Lee’s line around Petersburg continued to bleed deserters, and the trickle of deserters in June turned into a flood of deserters in July.  Sherman took Atlanta and then went on his March to the Sea.

Other changes took place, including the use of African-American troops and the resulting confederate rage about that usage which resulted in racial atrocities at Fort Pillow, Poison Spring, Plymouth, North Carolina, and the Crater at Petersburg.  Included in the confederate response to the use of African-American troops was the refusal of confederates to consider black troops to be bona fide soldiers, leading to the breakdown of the prisoner exchange cartel and the horror of overcrowding POW camps such as Andersonville.

I thought Brian did an excellent job in setting up the context of the war in 1864 and giving us a conceptual framework for the rest of the conference.

In the evening we had a discussion between Pete Carmichael and Gordon Rhea.  Much of what Gordon had to say has been on this blog before, especially in videos featuring him.  They talked about Gordon’s Overland Campaign series.  Gordon made the point that at Cold Harbor, Lee’s flanks were anchored on terrain features, so Grant couldn’t flank him out of his position, Grant had just been reinforced by Baldy Smith’s men, where the Army of the Potomac was opposite the confederate position was a bad place for an army to stay due to disease, and the Republican nominating convention was about to start.  All these fed into Grant’s decision that action had to be taken.  Gordon talked about how he did his research for the series and how he approached his research and his writing.  Also, fans of Gordon Rhea will rejoice to hear that he’s working on another volume of his Overland Campaign series, this one taking us from Cold Harbor to Grant’s crossing of the James River.

Edit July 8, 2014:  Here is the discussion between Pete Carmichael and Gordon Rhea, taped by C-SPAN.

This was a great start to the conference.  Now on to Day Two.

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2 comments

  1. Hey Al, a great post. Thanks for keeping us informed.

    1. More to come, Pat, as soon as I transcribe my notes.

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