This is another fine book of essays edited by Gary Gallagher.
The first essay, by Professor Gallagher, concerns, “I Have to Make the Best of What I Have: Robert E. Lee at Spotsylvania.” He tells us, “The Spotsylvania campaign marked a crossroads for Robert E. Lee in his handling of senior subordinates in the Army of Northern Virginia. From an ominous beginning on May 8, when Third Corps chief A. P. Hill collapsed physically, to a disappointing coda at the Harris farm on May 19, when Richard S. Ewell waged an ineffective fight with his battered Second Corps, Lee confronted problems that taxed his abilities as both military administrator and combat leader. Consummate skill as a field commander enabled him to juggle personnel while staving off U. S. Grant’s powerful offensive blows, but only at the cost of taking an increasing burden on his already overtaxed shoulders.” [p. 5] Professor Gallagher tells us that observing Lee during this point in time gives us an opportunity. “He possessed unusual gifts as a military politician, an attribute much in evidence as he addressed crises arising at the level of corps leadership. His behavior at Spotsylvania and in its immediate aftermath also offers a revealing test of two commonly held assumptions about his generalship. Was he too much of a gentleman to make hard decisions concerning personnel? And did he follow a hands-off style in directing corps commanders that sometimes compromised his strategic and tactical plans?” [p. 5] Professor Gallagher points to the Mule Shoe line as an example of Lee’s leadership. Lee had misgivings about the line, and he knew that it could only be held if the artillery was kept in place, yet he took responsibility for the line itself and for the artillery being moved out of it. As Professor Gallagher writes, “Lee’s unhesitating assumption of responsibility for events in the Mule Shoe graphically underscored his habit of leading by example–an element of his generalship that promoted trust and loyalty among his subordinates.” [p. 7] A. P. Hill was physically incapacitated during Spotsylvania, and on May 8 Lee temporarily appointed Jubal Early to command the III Corps. “On the 18th, Hill tried to resume command but lost his temper in Lee’s presence. Furious that Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright had mishandled his troops during an attack at Myer’s Hill on the Confederate right, Hill vowed to convene a court of inquiry. ” ‘These men are not an army,’ Lee told the sputtering Hill, ‘they are citizens defending their country.’ Wright was not a professional soldier but a civilian fighting for his people’s independence. ‘I have to make the best of what I have and lose much time in making dispositions,’ explained Lee, adding that Hill surely understood this. If Hill humiliated Wright by calling for an official inquiry, he might offend the people of Georgia. ‘Besides,’ asked Lee pointedly, ‘whom would you put in his place? You’ll have to do what I do: when a man makes a mistake, I call him to my tent, talk to him, and use the authority of my position to make him do the right thing the next time.’ ” [pp. 11-12] With James Longstreet was out of action after being wounded at the Wilderness and A. P. Hill sick, Lee’s other corps commander, Richard S. Ewell, wasn’t doing Lee any favors either. “Unfortunately, Lee already had determined to ease Ewell out of his post on the grounds of incompetence.” [p. 13] Ewell had proved to be a disappointment as a corps commander. In one incident, Ewell was in a towering rage at his troops, yelling and cursing at them, and even striking some of them on their backs with the flat of his sword. According to an eyewitness, Walter A. Montgomery of the 12th North Carolina, ” ‘Just then General Lee rode up and said: ‘General Ewell, you must restrain yourself; how can you expect to control these men if you have lost control of yourself? If you cannot repress your excitement, you had better retire.’ ‘ For Lee, who prized self-control above almost all other virtues, Ewell had crossed a line.” [p. 16] Lee decided to replace Ewell soon afterward, and the availability of Jubal Early made that decision a possibility. In late May, Ewell was ill and Lee used that pretext to replace him with Early. When Ewell said he was better, Lee did not allow him to return and kept Early in place. The moves Lee made along the way to achieve this show his knowledge of his resources as well as his ability to understand the organization of his army and his ability to tend to it. “Lee had long since marked Jubal Early as a man capable of larger responsibility, and Hill’s illness presented Old Jube with a trial run in corps command. Early’s departure from his division provided a similar opportunity for John Brown Gordon, a capable brigadier whom Lee wished to advance. Because Harry Hays ranked Gordon among Early’s brigadiers, Lee shifted Hays’s Louisiana brigade to Edward Johnson’s division, where it was consolidated with the depleted Louisiana regiments formerly commanded by Leroy Stafford. Hays’s removal not only cleared the way for Gordon to move up, but it also supplied adequate leadership for the Louisianans who had lost Stafford to a mortal wound during the first day’s fight in the Wilderness. The loss of Hays’s command left Early’s division one brigade short: ‘In order to equalize your divisions,’ Lee wrote Ewell, ‘you will … transfer R. D. Johnston’s brigade, or some other of Rodes’s [five] brigades, whose command is junior to General Gordon, to General Early’s division, so that General Gordon may take command of the latter.’ ” [p. 19] Spotsylvania shows Lee able to make the hard decisions regarding his subordinates. “This element of his generalship often has been obscured y contemporaries and historians who pronounced him too much of a gentleman to make difficult personnel decisions. … Walter H. Taylor, who spent more time with Lee than any other officer during the war, noted in his widely cited first memoir: ‘If it shall be the verdict of posterity that General Lee in any respect fell short of perfection as a military leader, it may perhaps be claimed … that he was too careful of the personal feelings of his subordinate commanders, too fearful of wounding their pride, and too solicitous for their reputation.’ Taylor believed this tendency prompted Lee to retain in command men ‘of whose fitness for their position he was not convinced, and often led him, either avowedly or tacitly, to assume responsibility for mishaps clearly attributable to the inefficiency, neglect, or carelessness, of others.’ ” [pp. 20-21] Professor Gallagher tells us, though, that “Even a cursory look at the Spotsylvania campaign and its immediate aftermath should dispel the idea that Lee habitually shied away from confrontations with his lieutenants. He spoke plainly to both Hill and Ewell when he thought it necessary. With Hill, the exchange at the North Anna on May 23 [when he rebuked Hill, “Why did you not do as Jackson would have done–thrown your whole force upon those people and driven them back?” [pp. 12-13]] could have left no doubt about Lee’s displeasure; neither could his insistence that Ewell gain control of himself in the Mule Shoe on May 12 have been misinterpreted by his raging lieutenant. Lee’s unhappiness with Ewell on the 19th and later refusal to reinstate him as commander of the Second Corps similarly indicated a willingness to take a stand.” [p. 21] Professor Gallagher next tackles the assertion that Lee was too “hands-off” a general who allowed his subordinates too much leeway. When Ewell and Hill didn’t perform to his expectations, Lee adjusted his command style. “At Spotsylvania, this showed especially at the tactical level. On May 6 at the Wilderness, Lee had withdrawn from danger at Widow Tapp’s farm once Longstreet arrived because he trusted his senior corps chief’s ability to manage the fighting along the Plank Road. Just six days later, Lee’s prolonged involvement in the Mule Shoe–amid a crisis no greater than that his army had confronted at dawn on May 6–betrayed doubts that Ewell could orchestrate the Confederate defense. Ewell’s erratic behavior on the 12th doubtless contributed to Lee’s decision to remain under fire longer than was prudent. In effect, he functioned as both corps commander and army commander for much of that trying day, a circumstance that would have been unthinkable on battlefields where he had a trusted Jackson and Longstreet to oversee their troops. Nor did A. P. Hill likely inspire much greater confidence in this respect. He had proved unable to rally his shattered troops on May 6 and had exercised little control over the action at the North Anna on the 23rd. As for Richard H. Anderson, Lee took special care to direct his movements with the First Corps.” [pp. 22-23] This is a very insightful essay, showing Professor Gallagher’s in-depth knowledge of Lee and of the military history of the war.
The next essay, “The Federal High Command at Spotsylvania,” is by William D. Matter. He starts by describing the ungainly command structure with the army. “The presence of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s independent Union Ninth Corps complicated the situation. Because Burnside ranked Meade, Grant’s presence was necessary to coordinate the operations of the Ninth Corps with those of Meade’s troops. This cumbersome arrangement boded ill for the command and control of the Federal force and inevitably would foster delays, confusion, and frustration. Problems would arise, for example, when Grant issued orders directly to Meade’s subordinates and when Meade hesitated to take an unplanned action without first obtaining Grant’s approval. Four men served as Meade’s principal subordinates when the campaign opened. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock headed the Second Corps, Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick the Sixth Corps, Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren the Fifth Corps, and Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan the Cavalry Corps. Although the most competent of the four, Hancock remained in relatively poor physical condition because a wound sustained at Gettysburg had healed slowly and continued to cause him pain.” [pp. 29-31] The results of the Battle of the Wilderness showed Grant that he needed to exercise more control over both Meade’s and Burnside’s commands. Around this time, Meade and Sheridan got into a shouting match regarding how the cavalry was being used. “Meade maintained that the horsemen should guard the army’s front and flanks while it was in a static position or on the march. Moreover, he wanted the cavalry to escort and guard the huge trains that followed the Army of the Potomac. Sheridan, on the other hand, believed that his command should seek out the enemy’s cavalry to harass and destroy it. In this situation, insisted the cavalry commander, the army’s trains would not be endangered by enemy horsemen. The fiery Irishman further believed that marching infantry columns should be able to protect their own front and flanks. The noneffectiveness of the Union cavalry in the battle of the Wilderness, where it performed according to Meade’s model, stemmed partially from the role assigned it by army headquarters and contributed to the Federal failure to gain a clear victory.” [p. 31] The two generals disagreed loudly, and Sheridan at one point told Meade that if he would let the cavalry go, Sheridan would whip JEB Stuart. Meade went to Grant and told him about the shouting and what Sheridan said. Grant said to let him do it. The cavalry under Sheridan went on an extended raid, eventually defeating and killing JEB Stuart at the Battle of Yellow Tavern. “Although removal of the talented Stuart from the Army of Northern Virginia assisted the Federal cause, Sheridan’s stripping all but one regiment of the Cavalry Corps from Meade’s army also caused Union delays and otherwise hampered the Army of the Potomac during its operations in the vicinity of Spotsylvania Court House.” [p. 33] The Army of the Potomac was forced to fight, essentially, without cavalry. “Grant and Meade consequently experienced a significant decline in their ability to acquire intelligence. Robert E. Lee avoided a similar handicap because Stuart, upon departing to pursue Sheridan, left two cavalry brigades to watch and operate from either flank of the Army of Northern Virginia. Responsibility for this Federal disadvantage must be assigned primarily to Grant.” [p. 33] One wonders if Stuart’s not being available for the first two days of the Battle of Gettysburg had an impact on Stuart’s choices here. May 9 saw the loss of Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, killed by a rebel bullet while overseeing some adjustments to his front line. Maj. Gen. Horatio Gouverneur Wright replaced him. It would take Wright some time to find his footing as a corps commander. Matter describes a situation where there was a plan for a simultaneous attack of all three infantry corps, but when Hancock returned to his corps he found that Gibbon’s division of his corps was engaged with the V Corps in an attack. “Warren decided an offensive in that area might yield victory and requested permission from Meade to attack immediately. The army commander told him to proceed with his corps and Gibbon’s division. … Acting solely on Warren’s expectation of success, Meade had permitted assaults that removed any chance for a combined offensive along the army’s line.” [pp. 39-40] This caused a delay in the larger assault. Anytime Burnside’s IX Corps was involved in an attack, there was potential, sometimes realized, for problems due to the cumbersome coordination required. “Ambrose E. Burnside and the Ninth Corps provided additional infantry and artillery but promoted administrative inefficiency during the Union effort at Spotsylvania. Meade wielded no control over Burnside, who was subject only to Grant’s orders. During the critical first five days of the campaign, the Ninth Corps was located a minimum of two miles from Grant’s headquarters. Because no telegraph line connected army and Ninth Corps headquarters, mounted couriers had to carry messages back and forth across unmapped and unreconnoitered ground.” [p. 58] Grant has to bear the responsibility for this cumbersome arrangement as well. This essay did a good job highlighting the coordination problems in the Union high command.
The third essay, by Gordon Rhea, is called, “The Testing of a Corps Commander: Gouverneur Kemble Warren at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. Warren was the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. He was a rising star, given command of the V Corps with George G. Meade’s reorganization of the Army of the Potomac, making him the youngest corps commander in that army. Ulysses S. Grant felt that if anything should happen to Meade, Warren would be his replacement. “But by the eighth day of fighting, Grant was contemplating Warren’s dismissal. Grant’s aggressive mode of warfare had no place for Warren’s deliberate style. As the campaign unfolded, Grant fumed through frustrating delays and missed opportunities, and Union casualty returns lengthened. The story of Warren’s dramatic change in fortune provides a fascinating glimpse into the Union army’s fractious leadership during the war’s final year. It also underscores the scarcity of Civil War corps commanders who proved able to conduct successfully large-scale offensive operations with little or no personal supervision from their commanding generals.” [p. 61] On June 17, 1863, Warren had married Emily chase, a wealthy young lady who had been previously courted by A. P. Hill. After a 2-day honeymoon, Warren returned to the army in time for the Battle of Gettysburg. After Gettysburg, with the wounding of Winfield Scott Hancock, Meade named Warren to temporary command of the II Corps. “In October, he defeated Hill’s veterans at Bristoe Station and sent his opponent a boastful message: ‘Hill, I have not only whipped you, but married your old sweetheart.’ In November, Meade assigned Warren to assault a Confederate position at Mine Run, this time with his own corps and part of another. Once again Hill was his adversary, but this time the Confederates were firmly entrenched. Warren canceled the attack and was roundly criticized.” [pp. 62-63] At the Wilderness, Meade told Warren, ” ‘If there is to be any fighting this side of Mine Run, let us do it right off!’ he directed. Suspicious that the rebel force might be larger than initially thought, Meade ordered the army to halt until he could determine the state of affairs. ‘I have directed General Warren to attack them at once with his whole force,’ Meade reported to Grant. ‘I think the enemy is trying to delay our movement, and will not give battle, but of this we shall soon see.’ Grant fired back his approval: ‘If any opportunity presents itself for pitching into a part of Lee’s army, do so without giving time for disposition.’ ” [p. 65] Warren didn’t do so but instead he moved slowly and waited for the VI Corps to move to the right flank of Griffin’s division of the V Corps. The eventual attack failed. Warren considered it a blunder. “The action at Saunders’ field starkly dramatized Grant’s and Warren’s different approaches to warfare. Warren saw the slaughter as vindicating the views he had expressed at Mine Run. Assaulting well-appointed earthworks without sufficient preparation was madness, and he did not intend to rush into combat again, whatever the inducements. Grant was of a different mind. His key to beating Lee involved rapid assaults that afforded the rebels no opportunity to respond or to initiate their own offensives. Some assaults, such as the Saunders’s field foray, might fail, but under Grant’s program tactical reverses were acceptable so long as the army hewed to his overall strategy. Warren and many of his compatriots found Grant’s military philosophy unpalatable. The aide Swan later remarked that Saunders’s field marked the ‘beginning of a reckless (brutal it used to be muttered in those days) way of fighting battles by a hurrying into action one division, one brigade, or even a single regiment at a time, which characterized every contest from the crossing of the Rapidan to the battle at Cold Harbor.’ The lesson was clear. Unless Warren adapted to Grant’s style of fighting, his days in the Army of the Potomac were numbered.” [p. 67] Warren may have learned from this, though. At Spotsylvania “Warren saw an inviting opportunity to redeem his fortunes. In the Wilderness, he had been criticized for moving too deliberately. This time, he would adapt to Grant’s style and ruthlessly press ahead, wasting no time for dispositions, to paraphrase Grant’s instructions in the Wilderness.” [p. 68] This assault, too, was defeated. On May 9, Grant planned a large assault, but Warren believed he could successfully assault early and received permission from Meade to do so, with Meade telling him to have Gibbon’s division from Hancock’s II Corps for support. That assault was another failure. “Warren’s assault disrupted Grant’s timetable. The Fifth Corps was in no condition to attack at 5:00, and the armywide assault deteriorated into a series of disjointed attacks that the Confederates defeated piecemeal.” [p. 73] On May 12, Grant scheduled another large assault. This time Warren only sent a part of his corps forward to test the strength of the confederate position, decided it was too strong, and canceled his attack. “Warren’s excuses won him no favor at headquarters. Grant and Meade had concluded that Warren must attack. Whether he succeeded or not was not important. The critical thing in their eyes was that he tie up the Confederates in front of him, and his equivocation while he second-guessed their orders threatened to wreck their plans.” [p. 75] Grant and Meade were clearly fed up with Warren. “Warren’s fatal flaw was an inability, shared by many of the Potomac army’s commanders, to adapt to Grant’s aggressive style. A biographer noted that Warren prided himself as a ‘scientific soldier,’ and he might have performed superbly under a general who shared his cautious philosophy. Grant’s bludgeoning tactics were repugnant to him, and the carnage deeply affected him.” [p. 77] By the time of Five Forks, Grant would authorize Sheridan to relieve any commander, and must have been privately very pleased when Sheridan relieved Warren. This excellent essay provides a good glimpse into Warren. He was too cautious when he was supposed to be aggressive, and imprudently aggressive when he should have exercised some caution.
The fourth essay is by Robert K. Krick and is called, “An Insurmountable Barrier Between the Army and Ruin: The Confederate Experience at Spotsylvania’s Bloody Angle.” He starts by telling us how the confederates barely won the race to Spotsylvania on May 8, 1864, and that by the time Edward Johnson’s division arrived it was after dark, so they formed the line in the darkness. “By the morning of May 9, Johnson had formed the nose of a projecting salient that would become famous as the ‘Mule Shoe.’ Part of the northern face of that salient would become the Bloody Angle three days later. Dawn revealed the extent to which Rodes and Johnson projected north beyond the axis of their comrades farther west, but their haphazardly chosen position survived review. Lee’s chief engineer, Gen. M. L. Smith, considered the line safe if amply supplied with artillery. In the aftermath of the disaster that subsequently struck the nose of the Mule Shoe salient–which was made possible by the mistaken removal of that essential artillery–Lee apparently blamed one of Smith’s subordinates for the bad engineering. The army commander, a staff officer wrote, ‘was very much out with Col. [Walter H.] Stevens … for the disposition that had been made of the troops at Spottsylvania [sic] C.H.’ The commander of an artillery battalion situated at the nose called the salient ‘a wretchedly defective line. … only kept because of the work done upon it, and the belief that our troops, entrenched, could never be driven out.’ ” [p. 81] Krick provides us a detailed description of the confederate fortifications. He tells us about the May 11 Union assault from the confederate point of view and how, after the confederate line was broken, confederate commanders strove to rally their men to resist. “Most important among those rallying lieutenants was Gen. John B. Gordon, a superb soldier despite having no prewar military education or experience. Gordon’s late-life memoir is so compromised by romantic viewpoints and purple prose that historians often do him the disservice of discounting his wartime performance on that basis. In the confusion early on May 12, the citizen-soldier was at his magnificent best, bringing his own troops and others hurried into line behind the breach. An onlooker saw Gordon ‘talking rapidly and literally foaming at the mouth’ as he sought to persuade Gen. Abner Perrin to form on his troops. Perrin agreed, and paid with his life.” [p. 89] Krick also tells us about Lee’s role in repairing the breach. “When Robert E. Lee became involved in the rally, the third ‘Lee-to-the-Rear’ episode within six days resulted. Gordon’s coalescing line stretched roughly east to west near the McCoull [sic] house. Revisionist scholarship suggests that it formed much farther south, near–even behind–the Harrison house, and that Lee found it there. The frantic Confederate scramble to restore order certainly covered all of the fields of both farms. Capt. Campbell Brown of Ewell’s staff, however, wrote soon after the war that he found Gordon’s line ‘near the McCoul house, with its … right in the woods, to the right of the house.’ Gen. Robert D. Johnston, commanding a brigade in the melee, ‘found General Lee only a few hundred yards in the rear of the lines that had been carried [McCoull was 390 yards south of the works, Harrison about 1,000], and exposed to the fire of the enemy from the entrenchments.’ An artillery officer marveled at Lee’s composure as the legendary leader traded on his immense popularity among the men to rally them: ‘perfectly calm and self-possessed, he stretched out his right hand toward the retreating men, ‘Stop right here men, your comrades need you, we are going to form a new line.’ ‘ A colonel could tell that Lee was ‘deeply moved, as I never saw him before,’ and reported that at Lee’s appeals, ‘the men went frantic.’ As he had six days earlier on the Widow Tapp’s field in the Wilderness, and again on May 10 not far from his current location, Lee prepared to lead his troops in person, hat in hand. Once again, the men shouted that their commander must go to the rear. ‘We don’t want you killed,’ a Georgian yelled. Once again, someone grabbed the reins of Lee’s mount and led him to the rear. ‘I never saw a man look so noble,’ an eyewitness wrote emotionally, ‘or a spectacle so impressive.’ ” [pp. 89-90] Krick describes the desperate fighting to stabilize the line and to hold off the Federals while the confederates constructed a new line of defense. He also describes a scene where both sides thought the other had surrendered. “Neither side had engaged in trickery to bring on the curious episode. Each had succumbed to ‘a silly infatuation.’ Men of both armies genuinely believed their enemies had raised a white flag. Southern recollections suggest three origins for their confusion. Some clearly saw a pale flag in the Union ranks before firing ceased–‘the light-colored flag … of Connecticut, I believe’–and mistook it for a symbol of truce. On parts of the line, Confederates saw Federals approach waving hats, not flags, asking to parley (‘It is useless. Surrender and save bloodshed.’). Once the confusion began, Federals showed handkerchiefs as protection as they went forward to accept the imaginary surrender. Hundreds of Confederates who saw those truce hankies thought they betokened northern capitulation.” [p. 107] The truce didn’t last long, and Federals who were near the confederate works asked to be able to return to their lines. Permission was granted by the confederates in front of them, but confederates on the flanks shot the Federal soldiers moving back. Some confederate soldiers did throw down their arms and move toward the Federal lines to surrender, but they were shot in the backs by their compatriots. This essay provides great detail into the fighting at the Bloody Angle and is well illustrated with excellent maps and photographs.
Robert E. L. Krick wrote the next essay, “Stuart’s Last Ride: A Confederate View of Sheridan’s Raid.” On May 9, 1864, Maj. Gen. Philip Henry Sheridan took almost the entire cavalry corps of the Army of the Potomac south on a raid behind confederate lines. “Sheridan extracted his entire Cavalry Corps from the woods around Spotsylvania Court House and prepared it for a thrust southward toward Richmond. His three divisions, commanded by Wesley Merritt, David M. Gregg, and James H. Wilson, represented some 12,000 men at peak efficiency.” [p. 128] The confederates didn’t take long to respond. “General Stuart dispatched Fitzhugh Lee’s two-brigade division to pursue Sheridan. Later that same day, he relieved James B. Gordon’s North Carolina cavalry brigade (of W. H. F. Lee’s division) from its duties and sent it after Fitzhugh Lee. Apart from Stuart and Lee, the three primary Confederate figures in the columns were brigade commanders Gordon, Williams C. Wickham, and Lunsford L. Lomax, all brigadier generals. Each was a seasoned officer with a long record of successful service in the Army of Northern Virginia.” [p. 129] Stuart brought ten regiments of cavalry with him to chase after Sheridan. This was less than half the cavalry of the Army of Northern Virginia, leaving behind ample horsemen to meet whatever requirements General Lee would have for cavalry, in contrast to what happened during the Gettysburg campaign, and also in contrast to the Union cavalry situation at this time. Krick details the various battles and skirmishes between the two mounted forces, and Stuart’s eventual realization that the Federal cavalry posed a threat to Richmond–at least, theoretically. “The bulk of Confederate literature on Stuart’s last days portrays his ultimately successful race with Sheridan as the salvation of Richmond. That comfortable interpretation does not survive scrutiny. On May 10, Sheridan’s column marched roughly eighteen miles–a mediocre performance for infantry and positively uninspired for cavalry. A Michigan officer with the column recorded the day’s advance as ‘even more leisurely than on the day before.’ At least one unit was in camp for the evening by 4:00 P.M. This seems to offer very strong evidence that Sheridan had no plans to enter Richmond. It is more likely that he purposely reined in his men to allow Stuart time to catch up. With his forage problem now solved, the Union general had no immediate goals other than to defeat the Confederate cavalry.” [p. 133] Krick takes us through the fighting into the Battle at Yellow Tavern and describes that conflict as well, including the mortal wounding of J. E. B. Stuart. He then takes us to the closing of the battle and Sheridan’s movements afterward, including the confederate pursuit. “After traveling south on the Brook Turnpike to Brook Church, Sheridan turned east on a secondary road that skirted Richmond. He shortly began to encounter difficulties. Some enterprising Confederate had planted land mines (called torpedoes in that era) in the road, with dramatic results. Union staff officer George B. Sanford remembered ‘it was thundering and lightning in the great style overhead, and the torpedoes blowing up under foot. Altogether, I certainly don’t expect to see the like again, and don’t especially want to.’ At one point, a handful of troopers dashed through an uninvestigated area only to detonate one of the mines. ‘The whole set of fours went up into the air,’ reported Sanford. ‘It was a very lively night,’ he dryly concluded. This irregular method of warfare infuriated Union officers. A large number of prisoners–mostly from the 5th Virginia Cavalry–accompanied the column that night. When the mines became thick, the prisoners were forced to search them out and remove them from the road.” [p. 149] Stuart died on May 12, the same day as the fight along the Meadow Bridge Road north of Richmond, where confederate cavalry was unable to prevent Sheridan from crossing the Chickahominy River, which mean they were going to get safely back to Union lines. Krick assesses the results of this raid: “For the second consecutive May, Lee lost a key component of his army organization.” [p. 157] Unlike with Jackson, though, Lee would eventually find a suitable replacement in Wade Hampton. “Sheridan’s raid also demonstrated that cavalry warfare in central Virginia had reached a new tactical level. Noisy mounted charges no longer sufficed to drive an enemy. Most operations involved larger forces wielded in a mass, often dismounted. The few mounted charges launched during the six days of the May raid invariably failed to achieve decisive results and most often ran afoul of stubborn dismounted resistance. The expanded role of horse artillery also deserves mention. … The new style of fighting predictably resulted in higher losses.” [p. 159] This was yet another outstanding essay giving us a great deal of detailed information.
The next essay is by Professor Carol Reardon, titled, “A Hard road to Travel: The Impact of Continuous Operations on the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia in May 1864.” Professor Reardon is one of the best military historians writing today. This essay is a great example of why that is. She tells us, “The concept of ‘military effectiveness’ provides some interesting insights into the performances of the Army of Northern Virginia and the Army of the Potomac during this brutal month. An effective army under sound leadership makes maximum use of available political, economic, and military resources, and converts them to fighting power capable of accomplishing its missions. Such key factors as tactical doctrine, the degree to which that doctrine supports strategic goals, stability in force structure and leadership, troop morale, unit cohesion on all levels, organizational flexibility to exploit opportunities and opponent weaknesses, and logistical support all help measure an army’s military effectiveness. Applying these concepts to the May 1864 operations of Robert E. Lee’s and U.S. Grant’s commands, armies so apparently mismatched in size and armament, offers some different perspectives on two of the most famous forces in American military history.” [p. 171] She very quickly dispels the myth that Lee would only consider offensive moves: “All of Richmond’s efforts to field and sustain an effective force would be rendered moot, however, if Lee continued to rely on his offensive–and expensive–operational philosophy. Lee’s fighting spirit unquestionably had brought many victories, but now, with the pool of potential recruits growing increasingly more shallow, he had to give greater consideration to preserving his fighting power while accomplishing his primary strategic mission in Virginia: the protection of the Confederate capital. That mission compelled him to consider ways to employ his forces defensively when promising offensive opportunities did not appear, even if he felt uncomfortable with the notion intellectually or professionally. His ability to adapt to this reality, translate it into orders and actions on the battlefield as he did at Spotsylvania, and maintain the soldiers’ faith in his leadership would provide yet more evidence of the Army of Northern Virginia’s military effectiveness before May 1864 ended.” [p. 171] Lee was able to sustain his army’s fighting spirit through this campaign. The Army of the Potomac faced its own challenges to its effectiveness. They had a new boss, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who would travel with the army and direct its commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, in the movements of the army. They didn’t know Grant, and he looked unmilitary to them. “In short, in his soldiers’ eyes, he was no Robert E. Lee.” [p. 174] Soldier morale dipped when Meade reorganized the army from five corps to three corps, doing away entirely with the First Corps and the Third Corps. “Strong ties on the brigade, regimental, and company level might have helped to cushion the blow of reorganization at higher echelons. After all, Civil War soldiers viewed their regiments and companies not merely as military organizations but as links to family, friends, and home. Although legislative enactments had just reinforced those bonds–willingly or not–in Lee’s army, great numbers in Grant’s force saw their closest bonds breaking.” [p. 174] Three-year enlistments were expiring and army leaders had to scramble to try to hold onto as many experienced veterans as they could. “Offers of thirty-day furloughs and appeals to pride and patriotism convinced many individual soldiers to sign up again. If enough soldiers in a tested regiment reenlisted, the War Department promised to keep the unit’s name and number on the army’s active roll with the new official designation ‘Veteran Volunteers.’ A number of blooded regiments did find sufficient numbers to ‘veteranize’ even before the spring campaign opened. Many regiments originally organized in the spring of 1861 could not muster sufficient numbers to merit this special status. On the eve of active operations, the Army of the Potomac thus included a significant portion of its strength–several dozen regiments–slated for discharge within sixty days.” [p. 175] Even veteran units would contain a large number of soldiers who didn’t reenlist and were just waiting for their discharges. Those soldiers weren’t going to be enthusiastic about charging an enemy position and having the opportunity to get killed just days before they were to go home. Additionally, a number of soldiers had no field experience and would not be able to perform as well as combat-tested veterans. “Unit cohesion–along with commitment to and confidence in one’s cause, comrades, and leaders–all serve as key components in soldier morale and military effectiveness. In the ‘soldier’s battles’ of May 1864, these bonds did not seem all that strong in Grant’s army.” [p. 176] The brutal, incessant fighting took its toll on both armies in both killed and wounded and in its effects on the surviving soldiers. This was especially true at Spotsylvania Court House. “Most firefights in the Civil War were brief affairs. Thus, whether they considered a single long day on the firing line or the sustained combat of the entire campaign, soldiers could not forget the unceasing nature of the fighting at Spotsylvania. Those who participated in the all-day fight on May 12 at the Bloody Angle recalled that clash in particular as a monumental test of human endurance. … The fight at the Bloody Angle lasted for just one day, but not a single day in fourteen passed without some kind of exchange of hostilities. Soldiers in both armies who found time to write home at nearly any point during this fight invariably commented on its unceasing nature.” [p. 184] The use of fortifications and sharpshooters gave both armies “a new respect for the randomness of death, a fear deepened by the reality that it might come at any time.” [p. 185] Professor Reardon does a masterful job of pointing out the problems both armies faced, and how they dealt with them, and how they affected their military effectiveness. This is an outstanding essay that should be read by all students of the war.
Professor Peter Carmichael contributes the next essay: “We Respect a Good Soldier, No Matter What Flag He Fought Under: The 15th new Jersey Remembers Spotsylvania.” The 15th New Jersey paid a heavy price at Spotsylvania. “Among all Union regiments, only the 148th Pennsylvania suprassed the New Jerseyans’ losses of 272 killed, wounded, and missing at Spotsylvania.” [p. 203] The veterans returned to the battlefield in 1906 and 1909, dedicating their unit monument in 1909. “They used these opportunities to articulate a brand of nationalism based upon heroic action and militarism. The result was a nostalgic view of soldiering that diminished the horrors of combat while expressing admiration for their former opponents. … In this way, they advanced the theme of national conciliation without delving into controversial political or social issues.” [p. 204] Professor Carmichael delves into issues of historical memory among the veterans and their families. The veterans chose to ignore the viciousness of the fighting at the Bloody Angle. This made it easier for them to be conciliatory toward the confederate veterans. “The desire for reconciliation demanded a type of selective amnesia that filtered out old rancor and highlighted common courage.” [pp. 218-219] That filtering included the fact that when the 15th New Jersey broke the confederate lines, neither side wanted to show quarter to their foes. There was a definite feeling of hatred during the battle that was missing four decades later. “Like most northern veterans, the Jerseymen did not believe their tribute to Confederate valor threatened the picture of the Union cause as a virtuous crusade led by selfless men. But their admiration for southern soldiers might have reflected a degree of dissatisfaction and alienation with fellow northerners. By talking with ex-Confederates and reuniting with old comrades at Spotsylvania, the Jerseyans found familiarity and understanding in the shared experience of soldiering. Returning to the battlefield also gave them an opportunity to shape how the Civil War would be understood in popular culture.” [p. 219] In 1964 the monument was rededicated with the same types of sentiments. “The 15th’s veterans would have approved of these conciliatory sentiments in 1909, but in 1864 they would have rejected such warm feelings for Confederates. The surge in nationalism after the Spanish American War altered how many Jerseymen and other northern veterans interpreted the past. Their collective memory suddenly embraced ex-Confederates as a worthy foe who, like all true Americans, fought in defense of their homes. Unlike civilians who could not appreciate the sacrifices and values of Civil War soldiers, the enemy had become a comrade in arms who understood the importance of courage and the test of combat.” [p. 219] Professor Carmichael’s analysis of this aspect of memory is cogent and comprehensive. This was a terrific essay.
The book’s last essay is by Professor William Blair and is titled, “Grant’s Second Civil War: The Battle for Historical Memory.” He starts by telling us, “Ulysses S. Grant fought Confederates twice in his life: once to save the Union and a second time to salvage his military reputation. In the former battle, Grant directed the Federal armies; in the latter, he commanded pencil and paper to compose his Personal Memoirs.” [p. 223] Professor Blair tells us, “When Grant wrote in 1885, former Confederates had spent the better part of fifteen years portraying him as a man of limited intelligence as a general inferior to Robert E. Lee. Although using restraint, Grant engaged in a literary contest with these critics, attempting to show why he deserved to be remembered as more than a hammerer who had bludgeoned his foe into submission.” [p. 223] This is another excellent essay about memory and how that memory is constructed over the years, and how memory can be changed through effort of those who are determined to shape memory. Professor Blair does a good job in showing the character assassination toward Grant in which confederate veterans engaged. In his analysis, Professor Blair shows how Grant responded to the falsehoods about him and how in some places his defense of himself went too far, such as in his overestimating the size of the Army of Northern Virginia and his characterizations of Lee. In many respects, though, his criticisms were sound. “He firmly believed the Confederates had numerous advantages by fighting on their own turf and virtually repeated the analysis that had appeared in his conversations with John Russell Young in 1878. Southern generals like Lee had less to worry about because they operated in friendly territory and had the support of the public and the press. Operating on the enemy’s ground created difficulties for the North. Coupled with the normal absences to leaves and infirmity, the need to guard supply trains gobbled Union manpower. When all was said and done, the general believed, the Union held no advantage in numbers for any battle during the Overland campaign or elsewhere in the war. … Grant claimed, with considerable truth, that the Confederacy resembled an armed military camp that mobilized most of its population for either military service or war-related production. To accomplish this, the South leaned on its population of 4 million slaves to keep the army fed. Consequently, Grant explained, ‘All the troops in service could be brought to the front to contest every inch of ground threatened with invasion.’ This military effort was made all the more formidable because the southern populace supported the war: ‘The cause was popular, and was enthusiastically supported by the young men.’ Special circumstances thus allowed Confederate troops to be deployed at the front. Meanwhile, northern generals had to protect supply lines in rear areas while also facing opposition to the war by Copperheads on the northern home front. Lee had none of the discord at home that complicated military decisions. Grant created in his memoirs a Confederate leader who could concentrate purely on military affairs without worrying about politics, while enjoying consistent adulation from the southern press. In taking these positions, Grant offered reasonable arguments, many of them militarily sound. But he misrepresented the extent of political tensions within the South, the ease with which the Confederacy rallied to produce goods and field an army, and even the extent of criticism against Lee.” In discussing Grant’s memoirs, Professor Blair also discusses the praise and criticism of them when they came out. He provides us a very full story of Grant’s attempt to shape the historical memory and to try to repair the damage done to his reputation by the falsehoods spread by former confederates. This was really well done.
Like the rest of the books in the series, this book should not be the only one you read about this action. It’s not a battle book. It’s not a tactical study. But it is an essential element to understanding the battle, the issues, and the people who fought it and impacted it. I highly recommend this book, and in fact, the entire series.