US Civil War

The Battle of Gettysburg – Day One: All Roads Lead There

When the fighting began at 6 a.m. in the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere, it would be the first of three days of the most horrific carnage the world knew at the time. When it was over on July 3, there would be piles of arms, legs, and horses stinking in the hot, Pennsylvania summer sun. Almost 8,000 soldiers lay dead and another 27,000 injured. In addition, 11,000 were captured or missing. The battle that began on July 1, 1863 was a long time in the making and would redefine a nation. To hear historian David McCullough tell the story in Ken Burns Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was about shoes. 1 out of 5 Confederate soldiers needed them and Gettysburg had a shoe factory there.  Shoes were only a minor part of the why 165,000 Americans fought it out in the wheat fields, forests, and rocky facades around this sleepy, seminary town of 2500. It was more about roads.

Gettysburg form Cemetery Ridge courtesy of the Library of Congress

Gettysburg form Cemetery Ridge courtesy of the Library of Congress

When shots rang out at 6 a.m. on July 1, the Battle of Gettysburg had been months in the making.  The summer before (1862) saw the Union army invade Virginia and create havoc on the civilian population in northern and eastern Virginia. While the Confederate’s won most engagements in their home state in 1862 and early 1863, victory came at a high price. By the beginning of 1863, the farmers in Virginia needed time to grow crops and raise livestock to feed themselves and the Army of Northern Virginia. By invading the North, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped to take pressure of the Virginia farmer and place the onus back on the Union to defend its own.

When Lee began making invasion plans, Gettsyburg was on the map. However, it was not the target. Lee hoped to capture a major northern city like Harrisburg. Harrisburg was not only the capital, but it was also a major rail center and additionally had a training center for the US Army. Lee thought if he could capture the city along the Susquehanna River, he could curry favor from Europe in either money, loans, weapons, troops, or recognition. The closest the Confederates came to Harrisburg that summer was two miles away.  Additionally, the time for invasion was ripe. The siege at Vicksburg was not going well for the Confederacy. Lee felt by invading the North, he might draw some troops away for the last Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River. On all counts, Lee would be wrong. Vicksburg was doomed and recognition would not be coming, victory or not.

After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee had to restructure his command in the wake of Stonewall Jackson’s death. Lee would have to rely on men who were not fit to walk in Jackson’s boots. For Lee and Jackson, they had been tied together at the hip. Lee always counted on Jackson to succeed in the most improbable conditions, and Jackson had until his own men shot him. Without his right-hand man, Lee had to find new ways of winning wars.  Lee divided up Jackson’s army into 2 parts. One part of the crops went to AP Hill, and the other to Richard Ewell. J.E.B. Stuart would again be in charge of the Calvary, or as Lee often referred to the unit, his eyes and ears.Lee felt confident he could win against any Union force.  

In early June of 1863, Lee began his move northward through Virginia. Calvary skirmishes at Brandywine Station, Aldie, Upperville, Aldie, and Middleburg showed the movement to Union leaders. Union General Hooker began to set up a defensive position, Hooker, rather than attack. Hooker felt he had to keep Washington, D.C. at his back at all times. Lincoln again, wanted an attack. Up to this point, the Union command structure held true to form that summer as Lincoln kept firing the Generals who lost to Lee. For almost two years straight, Lincoln kept changing what he thought were inept men, incapable of attacking but capable of coming up with excuses not to attack. When Lee and his forces skirmished with the Union in the middle of June, the new man in charge would not give Lincoln the satisfaction of firing him, Joseph Hooker would resign. He was replaced with George Meade on June 28. There was no way Meade would attack only days into his new role. Like Hooker, Meade felt he first duty was to defend Baltimore and D.C. Meade thought it better to fight the battle he wanted to rather than the one Lee or Lincoln wanted. It would be prophetic and sad at the same time.

For the city of 2500, Gettysburg held no great military advantage, arsenal, training center, supply dept, railroad junction or camp. It was a seminary school. Sure, it had some shoes, but it was not world renown for its footwear. Within three days, it would have another distinction. But what Gettysburg did have were roads – lots of them. Lee, having scattered his armies to the four winds in Pennsylvania to avoid to being destroyed in whole, decided the town would be the perfect place to reconvene his forces and use the roads to march out in new directions.

On June 30, 1863, Confederate General Henry Heth sent some of James Pettigrew’s men into Gettysburg to commandeer some shoes and other supplies. What the rebels found were Union Calvary in the town. The Confederates quickly retreated from the town and informed Heth. The next morning around sunrise, Heth began his assault on the town.

Day One 10 a.m.

Day One 10 a.m.

Dismounted and waiting for the advance was the 1st Division Calvary Corps (dismounted) under the command of John Buford. Though outnumbered, Buford mustered his troops to fight back Heth’s forces throughout the morning while awaiting reinforcements. His help came with John Reynolds later that day. Reynolds, himself, would not make it through the day. In one flanking movement along McPherson’s ridge, Reynolds was shot and died instantly. Abner Doubleday took over for Reynolds and helped to hold the line Reynolds started.

Reynolds meets his maker - Courtesy of the Gettysburg National Military Park

Reynolds meets his maker – Courtesy of the Gettysburg National Military Park

Union General John Buford

Union General John Buford

However, the rest of the day saw the Confederates slowly advance into Gettysburg. The Union had to retreat from the town. At first glance, one would think the Confederates had a great victory. Technically, they did. They had driven the 1st Calvary Division from the town, killed its General, and they now occupied the town. Confederate General John Gordon described one scene in which a Union commander

“was surrounded by Union dead, and his own life seemed to be quickly ebbing out. Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked his name and the character of his wounds. He was Major General Francis C. Barlow, of New York, and of Howard’s corps. The ball had entered his body in front and passed out near the spinal cord, paralyzing him in legs and arms. Neither of us had the remotest thought that he could possibly survive many hours. I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed

Francis Barlow

Francis Barlow

them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade in the rear. Before parting, he asked me to take from his pocket a package of letters and destroy them. They were from his wife. He had but one request to make of me. That request was that if I should live to the end of the war and should ever meet Mrs. Barlow, I would tell her of our meeting on the field of Gettysburg and of his thoughts of her in his last moments. He wished me to assure her that he died doing his duty at the front, that he was willing to give his life for his country, and that his deepest regret was that he must die without looking upon her face again.”

Barlow miraculously survived the battle and the war.

When Union General Winfield Scott Hancock arrived at the battle around 4 p.m., the Union army was in full retreat south towards Cemetery Hill, one of many high points surrounding the town. It was on these high areas that the Union would make their stand. The only consolation of losing the town was now having advantageous positions for day two. However, for the Union, it looked grim. Little did the Union know that all roads lead to Gettysburg. On day two, those roads, combined with the high ground, would create a catastrophe for the Confederacy.


See also:


The Siege of Vicksburg – Cutting the Confederacy in Two

I feel relieved when I think of how easy Americans have it in today’s modern world. We have easy access to food,

RT Johnson at Grant's HQ in Vicksburg

RT Johnson at Grant’s HQ in Vicksburg

entertainment, transportation, and communication. It was not always so. In 1863, General Ulysses S. Grant put a stranglehold on the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi. The siege was something not seen since the Middle Ages. Grant’s strangulation of the town was part of a grander plan to cut the Confederacy in half. Vicksburg was the last major Confederate city along the Mississippi River. The capitulation of the city was never in doubt. Just how long the city could hold out was. For 47 days, the citizens held out longer than anyone thought they could.

When most people think of sieges, they tend to think of catapults, barrels of tar, ladders, moats, and battering rams. A specialty of Roman and Medieval warfare, the siege had lost its usefulness in the Napoleonic era. Armies, before the Civil War, met in large numbers of over 100,000 out in the fields of Europe. But the United States was not Europe. If anything, the Confederacy was geographically the opposite of Europe. In climate, it was hot and humid in the summer. In terrain, it was heavily forested and mountainous in the Eastern Theater. Warfare was changing and the technology along with it created for massive casualties in the Civil War. For Union General Ulysses S. Grant, the siege was more an act of desperation to take Vicksburg.

Throughout 1962, Grant had victory after victory with the Army of the Tennessee in Tennessee and northeastern Mississippi. However, those victories came with questions and concerns about the high loss of life. Grant had been given the moniker, “Grant the Butcher.” Allusions were made to his drinking habits, his manhood questioned, but not by President Lincoln. Lincoln proclaimed, “I cannot spare this man, he fights.” More importantly, Grant won in 1862 – something that was not happening in the eastern theater of war.

For Grant, this was not his first siege. At Corinth in northeastern Mississippi, Grant had his army taken away from him for a while by Henry Halleck. Halleck employed the siege strategy in part because the previous battle at Shiloh had been so bloody. In addition, Corinth was not a large town. In little over a month in April and May of 1862, the Union forced the town to surrender and the Union had taken one of the few railroad junctions in the South. After the victory, Halleck went back east, Grant was given back the Army of the Tennessee, but only with 46,000 men.

Ulysses S. Grant

Ulysses S. Grant

Now for Grant, his sole objective was to take Vicksburg. The problem was everybody in the south knew Grant was going to go there. As a result, getting there was easier said than done.
Grant said this of the city on the bluff:

The Mississippi flows through a low alluvial bottom many miles in width; and is very tortuous in its course, running to all points of the compass, sometimes within a few miles. This valley is bounded on the east side by a range of high land rising in some places more than two hundred feet above the bottom. At points the river runs up to the bluffs, washing their base. Vicksburg is built on the first high land on the eastern bank below Memphis, and four hundred miles from that place by the windings of the river.

The winter of 1862-63 was unprecedented for continuous high water in the Mississippi, and months were spent in ineffectual efforts to reach high land above Vicksburg from which we could operate against that stronghold, and in making artificial waterways through which a fleet might pass, avoiding the batteries to the south of the town, in case the other efforts should fail.

[…] The ground about Vicksburg is admirable for defense. On the north it is about two hundred feet above the Mississippi River at the highest point, and very much cut up by the washing rains the ravines were grown up I with cane and underbrush, while the sides and tops were covered with a dense forest. Farther south the ground flattens out somewhat, and was in cultivation. But here, too, it was cut by ravines and small streams. The enemy’s line of defense followed the crest of a ridge, from the river north of the city, eastward, then southerly around to the Jackson road, full three miles back of the city ; thence in a south-westerly direction to the river. Deep ravines of the description given lay in front of these defenses.

Even President Lincoln felt it was the most important city at the time:

“See what a lot of land these fellows hold, of which Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket. We can take all the northern ports of the Confederacy, and they can defy us from Vicksburg. It means hog and hominy without limit, fresh troops from all the states of the far South, and a cotton country where they can raise the staple without interference. I am acquainted with that region and know what I am talking about, and, as valuable as New Orleans will be to us, Vicksburg will be more so.”

Beginning in December of 1862, Grant tried to take the city several times. The problem was that the city was too well defended from its high bluffs. But that spring, heavy rains made it possible for Grant, teamed with General William Tecumseh Sherman, to use the flooded river in April to boat past the city and land south of the town and surround it that way. Grant and 12 vessels made the run with Grant crossing into Mississippi at Bruinsburg nine miles south of Vicksburg. Grant said,

I was now in the enemy’s country, with a vast river and the stronghold of Vicksburg between me and my base of supplies. I had with me the Thirteenth Corps, General McClernand commanding, and two brigades of Logan’s

Battle_at_Vicksburgdivision of the Seventeenth Corps, General McPherson commanding; in all not more than twenty thousand men to commence the campaign with. These were soon [reinforced] by the remaining brigade of Logan’s division and by Crocker’s division of the Seventeenth Corps. On the 7th of May I was further [reinforced] by Sherman with two divisions of his, the Fifteenth Corps.

My total force was then about thirty-three thousand men. The enemy occupied Grand Gulf, Vicksburg, Haynes’s Bluff, and Jackson, with a force of nearly sixty thousand men. My first problem was to capture Grand Gulf to use as a base, and then if possible beat the enemy in detail outside the fortifications of Vicksburg. Jackson is fifty miles east of Vicksburg, and was connected with it by a railroad. Haynes’s Bluff is eleven miles north, and on the Yazoo River, which empties into the Mississippi some miles above the town.

Once on land, Grant had to fight his way to the town during April. Instead of marching north, Grant headed east and took Port  Gibson, then Jackson, and worked his way back to Vicksburg along the Southern Railroad. Skirmishes at Champion Hill and Big Black River Bridge did not deter Grant. Grant arrived east of Vicksburg on May 18. The siege had begun. For the next 47 days, life would become a living hell inside the city.


At the entrance to the Vicksburg National Military Park, this marker explains the military positions. This picture was taken in 2005.

In addition to the constant shelling from Grant’s forces on land, gunboats on the river also provided Union support. The citizens turned to making caves in the soft ground. Vicksburg resident Mary Loughborough stated:

“Our policy in building had been to face directly away from the river. All caves were prepared, as near as possible, in this manner. As the fragments of shells continued with the same impetus after the explosion, in but one direction, onward, they were not likely to reach us, fronting in this manner with their course. On one occasion, I was reading in safety, I imagined, when the unmistakable whirring of Parrott shells told us that the battery we so much feared had opened from the entrenchments. I ran to the entrance to call the servants in; and immediately after they entered, a shell struck the earth a few feet from the entrance, burying itself without exploding. I ran to the little dressing room, and could hear them striking around us on all sides. One fell near the cave entrance, and a servant boy grabbed it and threw it outside; it never exploded.”

In addition to the constant shelling, the weather did not help. Mississippi in early to July is extremely warm and humid. But the unbearable aspect for most involved in the siege was the fact that the spring rains and flooding created a plethora of mosquitoes.

Confederate Lines - Picture Taken in 2005

Confederate Lines – Picture Taken in 2005

After about 2 weeks, the city began to run out of supplies. The residents turned tree bark into soup. Rats became a delicacy. Confederate soldiers only received “four ounces each of bacon, flour, or meal, the rest comprising peas, rice, and sugar. It was less than half the rations normally issued and led, some believed, to sharply increased sickness among the debilitated troops.” By June 12, there was no meat left. Yet, the troops held on for three more weeks. 

An antebellum home in Vicksburg in 2005.

An antebellum home in Vicksburg in 2005.

The citizens also survived on cowpeas (black eyed peas) that were turned into everything from bread to a meat like substance. Mule even became a staple for the soldiers and citizens. The old Napoleonic adage that an army marches on stomach could be easily adapted to Vicksburg. Confederate General Pemberton began to lose soldiers who deserted for food. On june 28, he received the following letter:

“Our rations have been cut down to one biscuit and a small bit of bacon per day, not enough scarcely to keep soul and body together, much less to stand the hardships we are called upon to stand. If you can’t feed us, you had better surrender us, horrible as the idea is . . . This army is now ripe to mutiny unless it can be fed.”

On July 4, 1863, Pemberton surrendered to Grant. Over 29,000 Confederate soldiers surrendered and they were made to sign loyalty oaths.

Loyalty Oath

Loyalty Oath

All Confederate weapons were seized including guns and artillery. Strikingly surprising was the condition of the Confederate weaponry. Grant said of the seizure of Weapons:

At Vicksburg 31,600 prisoners were surrendered, together with 172 cannon, about 60,000 muskets, and a large amount of ammunition. The small-arms of the enemy were far superior to the bulk of ours. Up to this time our troops at the west had been limited to the old United States flint-lock muskets changed into percussion, or the Belgian musket imported early in the war almost as dangerous to the per son firing it as to the one aimed at – and a few new and improved arms. These were of many different calibers a fact, that caused much trouble in distributing ammunition during an engagement.

The enemy had generally new arms, which had run the blockade and were of uniform caliber. After the surrender I authorized all colonels, whose regiments were armed with inferior muskets, to place them in the stack of captured arms, and replace them with the latter. A large number of arms, turned in to the ordnance department as captured, were these arms that had really been used by the Union army in the capture of Vicksburg.

The Confederacy had been cut in half. The Mississippi River now was totally controlled by the Union. The Anaconda Plan, conceived by Winfield Scott, was working in the West. The US Army stationed 5,000 colored troops to patrol and defend Vicksburg after the siege. They last would leave in 1877.


For Teaching about Vicksburg

This first site has a great image and artifact gallery

This second site has great quotes (some used above) about the conditions in the city during the siege.

For Further Reading
Starving the South by Andrew F. Smith

Chancellorsville: A Question of Impatience

lincolnWhen the spring of 1863 came, President Abraham Lincoln was growing impatient with the progress of the war in the East. However, out West, Ulysses S. Grant was slowly working his way toward to Vicksburg and ultimately choking off the Mississippi River from the South. For Lincoln, the East was all that mattered come April of 1863. With Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy so close, Lincoln was flabbergasted that the Army of the Potomac could not take the city or even get close. General after general had tried and general after general had failed. Part of the reason was the brilliant tactics of Robert E. Lee. The other part was the incompetence of Union commanders. Lincoln knew if the Union could take Richmond, the symbolic nature of the task would be a death knell for the Confederacy.

After the December 1862 disaster that was Fredericksburg, Lincoln named Joseph Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac on January 26, 1863. Lincoln explains to Hooker why he was selected to command:

Major-General HOOKER:

        GENERAL: I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appears to me to be sufficient reasons, and yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable, quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm; but I think that during General Burnside’s command of the army you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a dictator. Of course, it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The Government will support you to the utmost of its ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the army, of criticising their commander and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can to put it down. Neither you nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army while such a spirit prevails in it. And now beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories.

Yours, very truly,


Joseph Hooker

General Joseph Hooker

Hooker had several battles under his battle and had been highly critical of the strategy of Burnside at Fredericksburg. Now armed with ca little over 130,000 men, Lincoln was assured that the Union could defeat Lee if Hooker could cross the Rappahannock and take Lee and his 60,000 man Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Then, there would be nothing to stop the Union from taking Richmond and bringing the Confederacy to its knees.

On April 20, 1863, Stonewall Jackson stepped off the train at a small Virginia train station to spend some much needed time with his wife and newborn daughter. A Few days later, the Battle of Chancellorsville would begin and Jackson’s place in Southern lore would be immortalized. On the 27th of April, Hooker began his move across the Rappahannock and began using his calvary to try to disrupt Lee’s supply lines. It was to no avail.

At the time, Lee had split his army into 2 parts. General James Longstreet had been sent to southern Virginia to gather supplies and food. Lee still had his right arm, Stonewall Jackson, and A.P. Hill’s corp. Lee began to grow impatient, too, as he was vastly undermanned with 60,000 men. Lee could have easily retreated and let Hooker take Fredericksburg and the surrounding area uncontested so that the Army of Northern Virginia could be at full strength. Lee, impatient, did not. He chose to fight Hooker then and there. Lee, however, did the unthinkable. In the face of a superior foe, he split his army again.

The night of April 30, Lee and Jackson bivouacked and planned the next day’s battle. With his army split, Lee was able to move faster and quicker to find weak points in the Union line. Stonewall Jackson would attacked Hooker’s right flank near Fredericksburg. Hooker, meanwhile, wanted to reconvene all his troops near Chancellorsville and attack en masse on Lee.

Lee and Jackson Bivouac

Lee and Jackson Bivouac


For Hooker, his plan to encircle Lee dissipated quickly. On May 1, Lee and Jackson smashed Hooker’s plans. Lee’s 14,000 man unit acted as a diversion as Stonewall Jackson moved into position to demolish the right flank of Hooker on May 2. With 21,000 men, Jackson and his men came out of the forest as if appearing out of nowhere. This action caught the Union flat-footed and lead to chaos in the Union lines.

An overwhelming sense of urgency permeated the actions of the generals on both sides. The war was dragging on. But here at Chancellorsville, the Confederacy was willing to take a gamble. However, in doing so, the tactics lead to impatience in the commander’s actions. On the night of May 2, after his brilliant action of the day, Jackson was checking his lines. Apparently, impatience had spread to his men. Several shots rang out in the darkness. Jackson wobbled on his horse. He had been shot 3 times by his own men. His left arm would have to be removed. The arm received its own tombstone sometime later.

The tombstone for Jackson's left arm.

The tombstone for Jackson’s left arm.

The loss of Jackson at a crucial point in the battle unnerved Lee. His famous saying of “Jackson has lost his left arm, but I have lost my right.” summed up the impatience he felt. However, Lee still A.P. Hill to call upon. Hill was wounded the next day. Lee would then rely on J.E.B. Stuart.

Despite Hooker’s losses on May 2, come May 3, the opportunities to win were still there. Unfortunately, like many times during the war, the Union attacked in piecemeal. By doing so, Lee united his forces quickly with Stuart’s to repel every attack on May 3. The Union artillery soon ran out of supplies allowing for a Confederate triumph of the day.

For Lee, this was his greatest victory but it came at a huge cost. Jackson never recovered from his wounds. Stonewall Jackson would die shortly after the battle’s completion. Lee was devastated. The victory did lift Confederate spirits but it also showed the growing impatience with the war in the East. Lee knew the Confederates were close to a victory in the East. Lee would gamble again to try and win the war in one battle and get recognition for the Confederacy with a victory on Union soil. He thought that the Union generals were no match for his generals and soldiers. That summer of 1863 Lee would take the fight north into Pennsylvania.

For Lincoln, his impatience was almost at an end.

For further reading:

The 1st Battle of Bull Run: A Turning Point in Attitudes

Stone House circa 1861

The prelude to the first battle of the American Civil War was one filled with romantic notions of what war was supposed to be. Both men and women were swept up in the cause. Towns sent off their best to live an adventure. Many young men thought they had better hurry up and get to the war before it was over. However, after the first major battle at Manassas Junction, attitudes changed in both the North and the South. This war was not be a summer’s war and home by harvest. It was to be a costly war fought over years.

From 1820 to 1860, the United States had tried to deal with the issue of slavery of in a variety of ways. However in the 1850s, new territory in the western US caused a debate over the spread of slavery and of slavery itself. Despite compromises in 1820, and then again in 1850, the road to war was coming to a head. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, the first shots were fired in angst between Americans. Over the next six years, the war drew ever closer. In 1859, John Brown’s raid on the arsenal Harper’s Ferry saw southern states react by creating state militias to prevent a slave uprising. In 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln saw seven southern states secede from the Union and form the Confederate States of America. When Lincoln called for 75,000 soldiers to put down the rebellion, other southern border states joined in. What was once a Union of 34 states was no more. On April 12, 1861, the Confederacy took the federal fort at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The Civil War had begun.

Irvin McDowell

In the watch fires of a hundred circling camps, the Union forces began to amass in and around Washington, D.C. The Confederacy positioned itself to the south in defense in both the Shenandoah Valley and the the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The Confederate troops had been well trained and disciplined. The Confederate forces had begun training in response to John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. The Union, they were a mess carousing in the capital. After Ft. Sumter, the call came for the Union to counter and attack the South. However, General Irvin McDowell did not. Mainly a desk soldier, McDowell had come to be in charge after never having seen a field command. He may not have known how to command such a large army as this, but McDowell knew his men were not trained enough to invade the South. It did not matter. The pressure to attack in the summer of 1861 won out. President Lincoln ordered McDowell to invade. And so McDowell did on July 16, 1861. He would be back in Washington a week later.

McDowell entered Virginia with 35,000 men, enough to crush the 18-20,000 forces stationed at Manassas Junction under the command of P.G.T. Beauregard. However, the Civil War was not fought on paper. It was fought mainly in the south. Manassas Junction was only important for one reason, it had a railroad junction, and it was on the way to the Confederate capital of Richmond. There were not many such junctions in the South in 1861. The North, meanwhile, had hundreds. Irony would play the wild card quite often in this battle. The railroad connected the Shenandoah Valley and General Johnston’s troops to Beauregard’s. Combined, the two Confederate armies would equal the numbers of the Union army.

After a long march through Virginia in the summer (high heat and humidity) McDowell and the Army of the Potomac set up camp near Centreville. Strangely, McDowell ordered his men to complete the final march toward the battle field at 2:30 in the morning on July 21. By the time his men reached the battlefield, they were exhausted. At 10 a.m., the first battle of Manassas took place near Bull Run Creek on Matthews Hill. A small Confederate force of 1000 held off 10,000 Union troops for 90 minutes. When William Tecumseh Sherman’s attack on the Confederate flank collapsed the Confederate defense, the rebels retreated to Henry House Hill. But rather than attack and finish off the Confederates, McDowell, waited, and waited, and waited…until 2 p.m. The resulting delay allowed for reinforcements to arrive via railroad.

At 2 p.m., the Union attack resumed. Over the next two hours, several factors swung Beauregard’s way. First, the high ground allowed for better defensive measures. Second, J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry forces were put in to play. Third, the Union was not sure who was who. Later, the Union would wear Blue and the Confederacy, Grey. But at 1st Manassas, there was a melange of blues, greys, and reds on both sides. Finally, Thomas Stonewall Jackson’s defense of the Hill became a rallying point for the Confederacy. McDowell, intriguingly, attacked piecemeal. Rather than throw his entire army at the Hill, the Union attacked a regiment at a time. After a regiment failed, McDowell ordered another regiment in.

Johnston’s troops became the support that allowed the Confederacy and the Army of Northern Virginia to hold off the invasion. By 4 p.m., McDowell ordered a retreat to Washington. It became a catastrophe after that. With the Confederates in charge of the battlefield, every Union soldier hightailed it back to the capital, many left their guns behind. It became a disaster as the soldiers returned in disarray. The Confederates did not pursue. In addition, many spectators had come out to watch the battle including Congressmen. After the battle was over, the spectators clogged the roads back to DC and one Congressman was taken captive and held prisoner for six months by the Confederacy before he was released.

As a result of the Battle of Bull Run or Manassas Junction, this was a war that was not going to be over in a summer. Over 5000 casualties on both sides told of the cost of just one battle. Not only was this going to be a long war for the Union, it was going to be a bloody one. Napoleonic tactics had not kept up with the technology. It is hard to think of the Civil War as having a lot of technology, but the firepower contained in the .58 caliber mini-ball would require amputation in battle if used today. In addition, bored rifles created more accurate weapons along with greater use of artillery.

Shortly after the debacle, Lincoln called for 500,000 more soldiers twice. A million man army was initially going to be needed to put down the insurrection. Lincoln was also wrong. It would take much more.

Henry House – 2007

All color photographs by Anne Petty Johnson (my wife)

All other photos from the Library of Congress.

For further reading online:

The Battle of Cold Harbor: The Civil War Begins to Change

Grant at Cold Harbor

The Battle of Cold Harbor is not like any other battle in the American Civil War. In one hour, on June 3, 1864, over 7,000 Union forces were killed or wounded in an attack on entrenched Confederate positions. Historian Ernest B. Ferguson called it “mindless slaughter” and “not war but murder”. Grant later acknowledged it was the only attack he wished he had not ordered. But this battle, despite its devastation and carnage, marked a turning point in battle strategy for both Union and Confederate commanders.

At the beginning of 1864, the Union had undergone significant changes in its command structures. Lincoln, after having gone through George McClellan (twice) Joseph Hooker, Irvin McDowell, Ambrose Burnside, and George Meade as heads of the Army of the Potomac, took a different approach towards catching and destroying Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Ulysses S. Grant, former commander of the Army of the Tennessee, was placed in charge of all Union forces. Later, after criticism of Grant surfaced over Grant’s use of force and large loss of life, Lincoln would say of Grant, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”

And fight Lee is what Grant would do in 1864. Grant’s pursuit of Lee began at the Battle of the Wilderness. With over 100,000 men, Grant’s pursuit of the 62,000 Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began on May 5, 1864. Over three days, Grant’s forces tussled with Lee’s. Both sides suffered heavy casualties. On May 7, Grant pulled away from the battle and began a surprise move toward the south, toward Richmond. Lee, although the military victor at the Wilderness, was now playing second fiddle. Grant forced Lee to pursue him. Grant was on the offensive and Lee and the Confederacy were on the defensive. The two sides next engaged that May at Spotsylvania Court House, just a few miles from the Wilderness. From May 8 through May 21, 1864, Grant attacked Lee at will, but yet Grant was unable to defeat Lee. Casualties were heavy for the two week battle with over 32,000 killed or wounded. The Confederates held. However, Grant’s intended tactics of constant war was beginning to have an effect on the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee’s numbers were dropping.

The two sides next met at North Anna from May 23–26, 1864. Grant wasted no time in being the aggressor while Lee was able to defend his positions with light casualties. However, Grant still was able to move around the flank of Lee at the end of the battle to continue the Union march toward Richmond. Just as at the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Court House, Grant withdrew his forces to begin the offensive anew. This time, the battle would be much different.

Most people tend to think of a battle as happening over 1-2, maybe even three days during the Civil War. The Battle of Cold Harbor would take place over a two week period from May 31 to June 12. However, the greatest loss of life would be on June 3 for which the battle is mostly known. Lee, although having been given 7,000 more men through the arrival of P.G.T. Beauregard, was wearing down. Grant’s persistent attacks forced Lee to use every available man. If the lines ever broke, then the Army of Northern Virginia would be finished. For Lee, this meant no reserve forces would be available and Lee had to use new tactics.

What had made the American Civil War so deadly up to this point had been a combination of technology and tactics.
The Technology
1. New rifles – the barrels of the rifles had grooves bored in them to spin the bullet through the rifle. This spin created not only more accurate weapons, but also created more distance
2. The Mini Ball – manufactured at the Springfield, Illinois Armory, the .56 caliber bullet did not just kill soldiers on contact, it destroyed and shattered bones. The shattering, along with the trace of the bullet, created infection throughout the surrounding tissue. Thus, amputation became the common surgery to avoid infection. A wound in the stomach was often considered fatal.
3. Fuses – Artillery commanders could now adjust their shells to explode after short intervals or long intervals giving the commanders a variety of methods in which to kill advancing troops or troops in entrenched positions at a distance.
The Tactics
1. Formations – Both sides used the standard formation of marching abreast toward enemy positions. Combined with the new weapons, this meant high casualty rates for both sides – but mainly the aggressor. The defensive positions held the advantage throughout the war except in sieges.
2. Lee often split his army – For one reason, Lee was always outnumbered. Lee would then use these smaller force to out maneuver the Union at almost every battle (except Gettysburg and Antietam). With his numbers wearing thin as a result of constant warfare, Lee would have to come up with a new defensive plan. He no longer had the numbers or reserves to divide his army in the face a superior foe.

The resulting change in tactics at Cold Harbor was to build earthworks, a.k.a. trenches. Although this type of warfare would become popular in World War I, Lee used it to his advantage at Cold Harbor. The forest provided cover and terrain suitable for defensive positions to ensure that the Army of Northern Virginia could defend and hold them.

On the morning of June 3, Grant had his forces move on two of the entrenched positions around Cold Harbor. Attacks began as early as 4 a.m. By noon, over 7,000 (some reports say 10,000) Union casualties laid on the battlefield. Grant would say of the attack,

I regret this assault more than any one I have ever ordered. I regarded it as a stern necessity, and believed that it would bring compensating results; but it has proved, no advantages have been gained sufficient to justify the heavy losses suffered. (Ferguson, 2000, p. 178)

Over the next nine days, the two sides continued to hammer away at each other. Newspapers hammered away at Grant, calling him a “Butcher.” Lincoln was not dissuaded. He knew, like Grant, that Lee was starting to wear thin. Had the attack succeeded, the Army of Northern Virginia would have been destroyed. Lincoln had the man he wanted to end the war in command. Grant, above all else, had taken control of the war. It was Grant who decided the terms of battle. Lee was in no position to do so.

After the Battle of Cold Harbor, Grant made another swing around Lee’s line, and instead of heading for nearby Richmond, the capital, Grant swung towards Petersburg. Using the lessons of Cold Harbor and Vicksburg, Grant laid siege to Petersburg for nine months. Lee, once again, built massive earthworks and trenches to defend against an attack and to place himself between Grant and Richmond. The tactics had changed. Cold Harbor made sure of it.

With most of Lee’s army hungry, and some shoeless, it would only be a matter of time for Lee and Grant knew it – thus the siege. A Captain in the Army of Northern Virginia stated after the Battle of Cold Harbor, “We are being conquered by the splendor of our own victories, and Grant accepts defeat with that consolation” (Ferguson, 2000, p.256). It was only a matter of time now before Lee surrendered, only a matter of time.

My Great-Grandfather, Albert Tell Slusher, was 14 during this campaign. A bit young for battle, he still was one of thousands of young boys who enlisted in the Army of Northern Virginia to hold off Grant. He would be at Cold Harbor. He would be at Petersburg, Richmond, and Appomattox Court House, too. He helped fire artillery according to his pension records. I never met the man. He died some 40+ years before I was born. Luckily, it was not 100 years.

Cleaning up one of the battlefields at Cold Harbor

For Further Reading
Not War But Murder: Cold Harbor 1864 by Ernest B. Ferguson

Vicksburg – Cutting off the South from Itself

Within two days of July in 1863, the Confederate States of America suffered two crushing defeats. The Army of Northern Virginia was repelled at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Any hopes of Robert E. Lee crushing the North via an invasion were dashed over three days in July. Any hopes of gaining recognition and aid from Great Britain or some other foreign power vanished. But for some historians, like me, the more crushing blow to the South’s hopes happened the next day, July 4, when the City of Vicksburg, Mississippi was taken over Union forces after a short but debilitating siege. Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi. The fall of the city would cut the Confederacy in two – no longer could trade, supplies, or railroads flow freely through the South.

Grant liked to attack things head on. As Lincoln said of his talents, “I can’t spare this man, he fights!” Vicksburg was someplace he would not be able to do so. Geographically, Vicksburg sits high above the Mississippi River. Its rolling hills and cliff make it the perfect place to defend. A bend in the Mississippi River makes it almost impossible to travel down the river unnoticed. But in the spring of 1863, the weather and floods changed all that.

Grant, as the head of the Army of the Tennessee (River) had started off in Cairo, Illinois in 1862 and had worked his way down through Kentucky and Tennessee. Taking Forts Donelson and Henry, Shiloh, and Corinth, Grant and his army had almost cut the Confederacy in half per Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan. Admiral Farragut had taken New Orleans in early 1862. The only holdouts in the spring of 1863 were Vicksburg and the lowly Port Hudson. However, Grant’s success was not met with plaudits and parades. The northern press had chastised his tactics for the loss of life, while others intimated at his taste for the finer beverages of the day.

If Grant had his way, he would have taken Vicksburg by land. In fact, as early as December of 1862, Grant tried to take Vicksburg. The city held strong. Under the command of John Pemberton, a 30,000 strong force held the heights. A ball was held to celebrate the Confederate successes in holding off Grant. That same night, Grant used recent flooding to make a break and take his 40,000 strong force through bends. The Army of the Tennessee mad eland south of Vicksburg and then made its way up to Jackson (the capital) and then across over to Vicksburg. The defenses around Vicksburg, along with the Geography, made it impossible for Grant to take the city by force. Instead, Grant decided to take advantage of his supply lines being in tact along with control of nearby rail and river traffic. Beginning on May 19, 1863, the Siege of Vicksburg was under way.

Siege warfare is not a new tactic. Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Medieval armies used it to perfection. Grant knew it was only a matter of time. The city’s only hope was rescue from another Confederate Army. Pemberton could not break out for that would leave the city unguarded. In addition, the city had no way to get food in. In a 12 mile loop, Grant’s Army had the Confederates surrounded. Citizens ate whatever they could eat during the 46 day siege. In addition, the Union guns, on land and on the river, kept up a barrage to drive home the terror of this war. This diary entry by Dora Miller describes the terror she faced:

June 25th. – A horrible day. The most horrible yet to me, because I’ve lost my nerve. We were all in the cellar, when a shell came tearing through the roof, burst upstairs, tore up that room, and the pieces coming through both floors down into the cellar. One of them tore open the leg of H_’s pantaloons. This was tangible proof the cellar was no place of protection from them. On the heels of them came Mr. J_ , to tell us that the young Mrs. P_ had had her thigh-bone crushed. When Martha went for the milk she came back horror-stricken to tell us the black girl there had her arm taken off by a shell. For the first time I quailed. I do not think people who are physically brave deserve much credit for it; it is a matter of nerves. In this way I am constitutionally brave, and seldom think of danger till it is over; and death has not the terrors for me it has for some others. Every night I had lain down expecting death, and every morning rose to the same prospect, without being unnerved. It was for H_ I trembled. But now I first seemed to realize that something worse than death might come; I might be crippled, and not be killed. Life, without all one’s powers and limbs, was a thought that broke down my courage. I said to H_, “You must get me out of this horrible place; I cannot stay; I know I shall be crippled.” Now the regret comes that I lost control, because H_ is worried, and has lost his composure, because my coolness has broken down.

On July 3, Gettysburg ended. No one was going to come to the rescue. No Union troops were going to go east and leave Vicksburg by itself as Robert E. Lee once pined. No, this was it. On July 4, the Confederate forces under Pemberton surrendered. The Confederates were not taken prisoner. There were just too many of them! While casualties were low for the siege, there was no way for Grant to feed and house the vast numbers. Originally, Grant had wanted unconditional surrender but was talked out of it by logistical horror stories from his commanders. On July 4, 1863, Union forces took control of the city. It would be a long time before the city would celebrate the holiday. The Confederate soldiers agreed to not take up arms against the Union.

After the siege, Grant would head east into Chattanooga and eastern Tennessee. By the end of the year, his victories resulted in his promotion to being in charge of all Union forces. With Vicksburg in Union hands, river and rail traffic within the Confederacy stopped. It was the high water mark for the Confederacy. From here on out, the South would be running on fumes. It could not keep up with industry and the population of the north.

In 2005, my lovely wife and I toured the National Military Park in Vicksburg. It was the first week in June and the temperature was 90 degrees and humid. I can only imagine the conditions the soldiers and citizens endured that summer.

The Union Battery Lines

The Big Muddy

The view from Union Lines

One of hundreds of monuments to those who served

The Cemetery overlooking the river