“Six Days in September”: Author Alexander Rossino Adds His Voice

I interviewed Ted Savas, publisher of Alexander Rossino’s fiction work Six Days in September. At that time Alex Rossino graciously offered the opportunity for an interview. Time is a slippery fish, and sometimes it gets away from me, but finally, I am able to introduce ECW readers to Alexander B. Rossino, award-winning WWII historian and the author of Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity.

MG: Before we get to Six Days in September, tell us something about yourself, please.

ABR: Sure. I’m a bit of an odd bird in the Civil War field. I hold a doctorate in modern European history from Syracuse University and worked in the research institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC for about 9 years. In 2003 I published a monograph study titled Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (University Press of Kansas) that took a detailed look at ideologically motivated violence during the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939. It won a Choice Book Award for that year, but despite my success in the field, I walked away from it. Not wanting to teach leaves precious few options for historians so I wandered in the wilderness for a while, so to speak. I still wanted to write and publish, though, and given that my interest in the American Civil War dates back to childhood, it made sense to explore the possibilities. The ball really got rolling when I began visiting Western Maryland regularly in 2009. The landscape fired my imagination about Civil War history in general and the 1862 Maryland Campaign in particular. It made sense after a while to turn my keyboard in that direction.

MG: What was the inspiration for writing Six Days in September as a work of fiction rather than non-fiction?

ABR: Several factors took me in the direction of historical fiction.

First, I wanted to challenge myself. I’d already published a well-received academic history and several scholarly articles, so non-fiction history was familiar territory. Writing historical fiction, by contrast, wasn’t familiar in the least. Making the transition from historical writing to historical fiction was definitely daunting. Not only is the use of a different voice required—typically a first-person perspective versus the third person—there is also the question of dialogue. For those of us trained as historians, the thought of creating dialogue can be nauseating. Initially, there is the psychological/training barrier to overcome and I struggled mightily with that. It’s the little voice in your head saying, ‘who are you to put words into the mouth of Robert E. Lee?’ as you type. Then there is the task of writing in a way that captures the reader’s attention and holds it. The personalities need to come alive to the point that even after a reader puts down the book he/she will ruminate on what Lee, or Longstreet, or Jackson said. If you can accomplish that then you’ve won the biggest battle (other than finding a publisher)! I took accomplishing that as a personal challenge and wanted to see if I could master the process.

My second reason for writing a novel rather than a non-fiction history had to do with wanting to draw public attention to the Maryland Campaign. Lee’s 1862 campaign often gets overlooked because of the 1863 invasion of Pennsylvania. The three-day fight at Gettysburg in July 1863 was indeed important, but I’m in agreement with a lot of Civil War scholars who believe the war’s real turning point occurred at Antietam on September 17, 1862. Lee’s reverse there ended the possibility of European intervention in the war and it provided Lincoln with political cover to introduce the Emancipation Proclamation. Two-plus years of bloody conflict remained to be fought, but the Confederacy’s best chance to win the war came and went in September 1862. Most general readers don’t know that, so I wanted to raise the Maryland Campaign in the public’s consciousness. I thought doing so might bring more visitors to Sharpsburg and to the Antietam National Battlefield, and I hoped my work would boost the sale of Maryland Campaign and Antietam battle histories. Historical fiction is the gateway drug of interest in Civil War history so I thought I’d try to run with it. Gettysburg saw a huge uptick in visitation after Michael Shaara published The Killer Angels. I hoped I might be able to achieve a similar result for Antietam.

Lastly, I think there are already solid histories out there of the Maryland Campaign and the Battle of Antietam. In a crowded field like that one needs to find a new angle. Historical fiction seemed like a wide-open road.

MG: What specific primary sources did you use for Six Days?

ABR: Everything I could get my hands on. I used the Official Records, regimental histories, memoirs, etc. I also did some primary research at the Sharpsburg Historical Society, leveraged photographs and maps and walked the combat sites. Basically, I approached researching the book in the same way I approach researching a non-fiction history. The only differences are in writing up the evidence and in the perspective presented.

MG: How did you use primary source materials to create the relationship between “Stonewall” Jackson and Robert E. Lee?

Alex Rossino

ABR: This was a tricky task that required looking beyond the primary sources because I didn’t find much out there that described interactions between the two men. I read back into everything available on their interaction from Lee’s assignment as head of the Army of Northern Virginia to the invasion of Maryland and beyond. We need to remember that as of September 1862, Lee and Jackson hadn’t known each another very long. Lee had only been in command of the ANV since the beginning of June that year. Before then he had exchanged some correspondence with Jackson concerning Harper’s Ferry and operations in the lower Shenandoah Valley, but that was about the extent of things. The best I could do was put myself in the shoes of each man when they were conversing – Lee, formal and aloof, in most cases. Jackson, quirky, snappish, and taciturn. If an occasion did exist where there was recorded dialogue between the two men I did my best to weave it into the text. Even then, however, I made slight changes in phrasing because of the questionable nature of memory. As Ted Savas, Managing Director of my publisher Savas Beatie, likes to say from his experience as an attorney, people’s memories can’t be relied upon. Even direct witnesses will come away from events with different opinions on what others said. Add a few days or weeks and those memories become increasingly suspect. As an historian I’ve learned not to take any quote as sacrosanct unless multiple sources record it exactly the same way and that almost never happens.

MG: Most of us–including me–do not know much about Henry Kyd Douglas as a person. How did you use primary sources to create his unique personality?

ABR: Well, the best primary source is Douglas’s own writing. The trick is to read what he wrote for an understanding of the man, not necessarily for a recounting of events. I Rode With Stonewall was written by a man with a clear desire to be remembered. Douglas’s ego is on full display, so I used his own voice in the book flesh out his historical personality. Where direct information about Douglas was lacking I resorted to context. Accounts of what it was like to be a staff officer with Stonewall Jackson can provide an understanding of what Douglas may have experienced. Weaving the together the context with what I took from Douglas’s writing itself resulted in the character you meet in Six Days. I wanted to be as faithful to Douglas, and all the other historical personalities for that matter, as possible.

MG: Why Antietam, of all the available battles other than Gettysburg?

ABR: Because Antietam deserves more attention than it gets and because Gettysburg has been done to death in both fiction and non-fiction. Antietam, and South Mountain, for that matter, were critically important fights with lasting repercussions. I thought the Maryland Campaign deserved its own iconic novel, which I humbly hope I’ve managed to write. Then, too, there’s the fact that I live in the shadow of South Mountain. The Maryland Campaign is all around me. It just made sense to write about what I experience on a daily basis.

MG: Although Six Days is certainly its own book and stands on its own, how much of a factor was Killer Angels as the book developed?

ABR: It lurked in the background, but I wouldn’t say it was a major factor most of the time. The selection of the Sixth Alabama as the one unit I’d follow was a hat-tip to Shaara’s work, for example. The Sixth fought on the extreme left of the Confederate line on South Mountain, just like the Twentieth Maine fought on the extreme left of the Federal line at Gettysburg. Beyond this, the similarities disappear. Whereas The Killer Angels takes some liberties with the facts of what happened, I tried to make Six Days as meticulously accurate as I could. I may have fallen short here and there but the mistakes are honest and can be corrected in future editions. Shaara also blends the Union and Confederate stories together while I chose to write them up separately. I wanted to detail the Confederate experience in isolation from the experience of Union troops because that is how the participants lived things. Writing from one side of the field provides a certain continuity that is lost when a reader jumps back and forth from side to side. I wanted to achieve a fog of war effect and make the reader feel like even though he/she might know the history, he/she wouldn’t necessarily know what was coming next. I wanted the immediacy of the moment to come through so that one could think with Lee as he worked out what was occurring. In this way, one shares in the decision process and comes away with a better understanding of why Lee took the steps he did.

MG:  Now to the really important question! Who plays whom in the movie? And I am glad there is at least one role for a woman . . .

ABR: Yes, the important question! I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and said they’d like to see Six Days on film. Of course, I’d like to see it, too. Movies about the Civil War almost always end up disappointing those of us who know a lot about the history. We need a film that focuses on the story without trying to bring in all of the events; a film that captures the desperation of the moment without being maudlin or melodramatic.

Can you imagine Barry Pepper as Gilbert Farney sweating under his coonskin cap during the fight at the Sunken Road? Pepper played Private Daniel Jackson, the sniper, in Saving Private Ryan. I’ve also thought Adrian Brody would make a good Franklin Turner, the captain from Maryland who volunteers to serve on Jackson’s staff. Either Zac Efron or Jamie Bell would fit the part of Billy Dennis, Gilbert Farney’s best friend in the Sixth Alabama. Bell starred in Turn: Washington’s Spies, which I really enjoyed. We can’t forget about Reverend John Alexander Adams either. Clint Eastwood would be perfect for him at his current age, but it might be too modest a part for an A-lister like him. Bryan Cranston would be a good choice, too.

For the major Confederate characters—Lee, Longstreet, and Jackson—I think the actors need to be entirely new to an American audience. I don’t mean they need to be foreign, just that they need to be new faces. I’ve watched Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen each play Robert E. Lee and throughout their performances, I kept saying to myself, “Hey, its Robert Duvall!” I love the guy’s work, but we need to see Lee on the big screen without the distraction of him being played by a major star, in my opinion. The portrayal needs to be gritty and above all human. Lee showed plenty of emotion on the field, especially at Sharpsburg. That should come through.

As for female leads, you are right, there are a couple of roles, which I’m grateful I was able to write in. There’s a lot of testosterone in Six Days that needed some balance. We’d need to cast a Savilla Miller, the woman I found to be one of the bravest people I came across in my research. She stood under fire on her front porch all day during the fight at Antietam providing water to Confederate troops. Evan Rachel Wood could probably play her well. More important would be casting Reverend Adams’s wife, Mary Anna. Jessica Lange could probably capture the required bitterness and pathos of the character.

MG:  What are you currently working on, and what is next?

ABR: Good question. Back in January, I submitted an article to Civil War Monitor that I’m waiting to hear about. It’s honest to goodness history about George McClellan in Frederick on September 13, 1862. The date is key, of course, because that was the day when McClellan received the misplaced copy of Lee’s Special Orders No. 191. I co-wrote the article with Gene Thorp, who had done an amazing amount of primary research but didn’t have the time to write it up. We compared notes when I was doing research for my next book and found we had a lot of interpretive points in common so we collaborated on it. The gist of our argument is that McClellan moved with alacrity on September 13 after reading Lee’s orders. We believe the whole “McClellan had the slows” argument is incorrect and in need of re-evaluation.

Concerning the next book, I’m about 50% finished writing the Yankee companion volume to Six Days. The book covers exactly the same period of time but examines events from the Union point of view. I’m writing it to square the circle and tell the other side of the story. The Northern perspective is fascinating. Political intrigue in the command staff of the Army of the Potomac has proven challenging to navigate, and McClellan is generally not a sympathetic character. I’m also focusing on a handful of enlisted guys with the Twenty-Third Ohio, especially an Irishman named Thomas James Kelly. He’s the Gilbert Farney of the book. A new perspective I’m adding is that of a regimental commander—Colonel Jacob Higgins of the One Hundred Twenty Fifth Pennsylvania Volunteers. I realized after finishing Six Days that I hadn’t written much to represent the experiences of commanders in the middle ranks. This is something that Shaara covered in The Killer Angels, but it’s new turf for me. Finally, there is also a big role for George Armstrong Custer, who served on McClellan’s staff in Maryland. He plays the aide-de-camp who witnesses events role represented by Franklin Turner in Six Days.

As for women, I’ve been able to fit in a character who nurses Tom Kelly after he ends up wounded at the Battle of South Mountain. She’s a suffragette and so radical in her beliefs (a real Susan B. Anthony type) that she throws Kelly for a loop!

MG: Is there anything I did not ask about that you would like ECW readers to know?

ABR: There is. Folks might want to visit my website every so often. The address is www.alexanderrossino.com. I post tidbits there about the writing process that might answer some questions people have after reading Six Days. For example, I composed an entire introduction for the book which didn’t make it into the published edition so I’ve posted it there.

The last thing I’d like to mention is that although I conceived Six Days as an historical novel, I’ve never thought of it entirely as fiction. Telling the story in the form of a novel required that I create dialogue and a few situations to fill holes, but most of the material is as honest to the history as I could make it. I even used the dialogue to develop my own interpretation of the events. In short, I tried to write a book I thought historians would enjoy and they are a tough crowd. If you can please them you can please anyone. All I hope is that I managed to achieve some success.

*     *    *

I have read Six Days and enjoyed it immensely. I am looking forward to the Yankee version, of course. Movies and good fiction are two excellent hooks to get people interested in history. People love a good story, and those told by the past are among the best. I am sure that Six Days is inspiring imaginations even as I write. Thanks, Alex.

J.E.B. Stuart and the Question of Corps Command

JEB Stuart

In the days after his victory in the Chancellorsville Campaign, Gen. Robert E. Lee faced a number of critical decisions, among them the reorganization of his Army of Northern Virginia. The death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 10, 1863 had left a void at corps command. There were a number of officers, including Maj. Gens. Richard Ewell, Ambrose Powell Hill and Richard Anderson in the running to replace Jackson. Another name which may have been the most intriguing was the commander of Lee’s cavalry division, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart. Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve been trying to locate primary evidence regarding Stuart’s consideration for corps command. The search is far from over, in fact in may never be over, but I wanted to share what I have found so far and offer my thoughts on the matter. I also invite our readers to share any primary sources on the subject for additional research.

When Jackson fell victim to friendly fire on the night of May 2 at Chancellorsville, command of his Second Corps eventually fell to Stuart. The cavalry chief turned in a splendid performance the following day and his efforts eventually led to a Confederate victory. Stuart returned to command of the mounted division on May 6. Following Jackson’s death on May 10, rumors regarding his replacement began to circulate through the Confederate ranks.

Stuart’s own headquarters was not immune to such innuendo. Captain John Esten Cooke, a relative of Stuart’s wife, Flora, and member of his staff recorded in his journal a brief discussion he had with the gray cavalier. According to Cooke, Stuart related a story told to him by Col. Thomas L. Rosser, the commander of the 5th Virginia Cavalry, “that Jackson on his death bed had expressed a desire that he…should succeed him in the command of his corps.” Stuart then told Cooke that he “would rather know that Jackson said that, than have the appointment.”

Interestingly enough, Rosser  did not visit Jackson during the final six days of his life. Additionally, the statement from Jackson has not been corroborated by those who were with him as he passed away his last hours in Thomas Chandler’s plantation office near Guinea Station. That isn’t to say those that were closest to Jackson were not impressed by Stuart’s performance. Jackson’s cartographer, Jedediah Hotckiss, praised Stuart for his actions at Chancellorsville in a letter to his wife written on May 19. Hotchkiss, however, does not mention the potential of Stuart taking over Jackson’s corps. Stuart also mentioned the camp rumors in a letter to Flora. “There has been a great deal of talk of my succeeding General Jackson,” he wrote, “but I think without foundation in fact.”

On May 20, Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis to propose a reorganization of his army. This restructure revolved around the creation of a third corps. Stuart’s name is not mentioned either as a replacement for Jackson or as a new corps commander. It does appears from a letter written by Lee to Stuart on May 23 that Stuart offered his thoughts on who should succeed Jackson.

That’s not to say Stuart did not covet a third star and a promotion to Lieutenant General, a grade synonymous with corps command in Lee’s army. Stuart stood fourth on the seniority list of Major Generals behind Ewell (January 24, 1862) Hill (May 26, 1862) and Anderson (July 14, 1862). Such a promotion, vaulting Stuart over three other officers, could create discontent and friction within the army. Lee was in the midst of planning his second Northern invasion where cooperation and cohesion among his subordinates would be critical to the operation’s success.

Still, rumors regarding Stuart’s consideration for command persisted. It appears one of the chief purveyors was Brig. Gen. William Dorsey Pender, a brigade commander in Hill’s division. “I hear that Gen’l Jackson is thought to be in very serious condition”, he wrote to his wife, Fanny, on May 9. “He has pneumonia…he will be a great loss to the country  and it is devoutly hoped that he may be spared to the country. Some think in his absence Stuart will be made Lt. General, but I hope not.” In another letter two weeks later, Pender wrote, “it is rumored that Stuart has tendered his resignation because they will not give him this corps, but I cannot think him so foolish.”

Stuart’s elevation to the corps level had the potential to upset Pender’s own rise within the army. Pender’s direct superior, A.P. Hill, was Jackson’s senior division commander and stood to receive the Second Corps. If Stuart were given Jackson’s corps, Hill would remain at the division level. On the other hand, Hill’s elevation would create a vacancy for his division. Pender,  stood second on the seniority list among Hill’s brigadiers behind Henry Heth. It should be noted that Pender shared his appointment with fellow brigade head James Archer. Heth, however, presented problems of his own.

“If A.P. Hill is promoted, a major general will be wanted for his division,” Lee wrote  in the aforementioned letter to Davis. “Heth is the senior brigadier in the division. I think him a good officer. He has lately joined this army, was in the last battle, and did well. His nomination having been once declined by the Senate, I do not know whether it would be proper to promote him.” In the subsequent reorganization, both Heth and Pender were promoted to Major General and received a divisional command.

But at end of the day, the discussion may be a moot point. In August, 1863, Lee recommended that Stuart’s cavalry be restructured as a corps. Davis approved the measure and Stuart finally received his corps command in September. It should be noted that Stuart was not promoted to Lieutenant General upon the reorganization, which might be worth looking into at some point as well.

All things considered, there appears to be little evidence that Stuart was a major contender for an infantry corps after Chancellorsville. Still, the search goes on and the process continues.

Sea Power at Port Royal Sound: A Missed Opportunity?

Port Royal bombardment

Bombardment of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, November 7, 1861

On November 5, 1861, the Confederate Secretary of War established the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and East Florida as a military department, assigning one of his most senior and experienced officers, General R. E. Lee, to command it.

No Federal armies were marching anywhere near that far south. The threat was from the sea, from the dangerous flexibility overwhelming command of the sea provided their adversaries. The general was to consolidate scarce resources and improve defenses along that vital coast.

Lee warned from Savannah in January 1862: “The forces of the enemy are accumulating, and apparently increase faster than ours.” He feared, given maritime capabilities of speedy transportation and concentration, “it would be impossible to gather troops necessarily posted over a long line in sufficient strength, to oppose sudden movements. Wherever his fleet can be brought no opposition to his landing can be made except within range of our fixed batteries. We have nothing to oppose to its heavy guns, which sweep over the low banks of this country with irresistible force.”[1] He could not mount a cordon defense.

President Lincoln and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had every intention of employing that sea power. However, in hindsight, their strategic vision was limited, and opportunities were lost for potentially decisive joint army/navy campaigns into the Southern heartland.[2]

A central component of Union strategy was to interdict trade with seceded states, starving them of funds, war materials, and necessities. On April 19, 1861, ten days after Fort Sumter, Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Blockade Against Southern Ports.”

It was the most extensive naval blockade ever attempted, covering over 3,500 miles of low lying sand and swamp from Cape Hatteras to Matamoros. The blockade eventually would employ more than five hundred vessels manned by a hundred thousand sailors. But it required secure local bases from which to repair, resupply, and refuel blockaders, and to rest crews without long, wearying retreats to secure Norther harbors.

The Civil War demanded operations new to the U.S. Navy, employing innovative tactics and technology. These included: joint and amphibious operations; reduction of powerful shore fortifications; capture and control of heavily defended harbors, inland waterways, and contiguous coastal areas; interdiction of enemy trade, communications, and transportation—all while sustaining and protecting friendly forces. The navy, heretofore an exclusively deep-water force, had never thought very much about any of these power projection challenges.

There were no protocols and no mechanisms for directing joint operations between land and sea services. The sole joint commander was the commander-in-chief; he was still learning the ropes in the winter of 1861-62. The command environment was muddled by George McClellan’s machinations to supersede Winfield Scott as commanding general. Army and navy secretaries managed separate fiefdoms. Officers of one service, however senior, could issue no orders to any officer of the other service, however junior.

army navy joint operations

Coordination depended entirely on the willingness and abilities of service secretaries to cooperate strategically, and of respective field commanders to mutually plan and execute operationally. Much depended on personalities. The Union was not ready to fully exploit weak Confederate coastal defenses.

After months of discussion, Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, was selected as the target of an expeditionary force consisting of 17 warships and 60 transports under the command of Flag Officer Samuel F. DuPont ferrying 13,000 troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas W. Sherman (no relation to W. T. Sherman).Port Royal 1861Port Royal—one of the finest natural harbors on the east coast, situated inland from Hilton head between Savannah and Charleston—would be a wonderful base for blockading and for denying the Confederacy a major blockade-running port. Two major sand forts, Walker and Beauregard, with 3,000 Rebels and mounting about twenty guns each guarded the entrance.

The forts were incomplete and poorly designed; a shortage of heavy 10” Columbiads was partially offset by a larger number of smaller caliber guns. The fledgling Confederate Navy contributed one small converted coaster and three former tugs, each mounting two guns—the “mosquito fleet.”

DuPont and Sherman demonstrated excellent cooperation in planning and executing. As it turned out, however, Sherman’s troops were not needed; it was an all-navy show.

battle of port royal 3On November 7, 1861, DuPont steamed his squadron onto Port Royal in line ahead and ran a race-track course up and down the harbor blasting in succession the fort on one side and then on the other with all his broadsides.

Some ships found they could stop and enfilade the water battery at Fort Morgan in a position safe from return fire.

The mosquito fleet withdrew after lobbing a few shells toward the Yankees. Fort Morgan defenders had difficulty hitting moving targets while losing their guns to enemy fire and running out of ammunition. They abandoned their positions.

Fearing isolation from retreat, those at Fort Beauregard followed. DuPont’s sailors rowed ashore, occupied the forts, and then turned them over to the army. Port Royal would be a Federal bastion for the remainder of the war.

“Both Sherman and Du Pont, to their credit, saw that Port Royal’s fall had potential that went far beyond serving as a logistical base for the navy’s blockading operations,” noted one historian.[3] A few months later Du Pont wrote that “the occupation of this wonderful sheet of water, with its tributary rivers, inlets, outlets, entrances and sounds, running in all directions, cutting off effectually all water communications between Savannah and Charleston, has been like driving a wedge into the flanks of the rebels between these two important cities.”[4]

The Confederate high command agreed, which is why President Davis dispatched Lee to take charge of coastal defenses. In the report cited above, Lee considered the aftermath of the Union victory at Port Royal: “I have thought [the enemy’s] purpose would be to seize upon the Charleston and Savannah Railroad near the head of Broad River [flowing into Port Royal Sound], sever the line of communication between those cities with one of his columns of land troops, and with his other two and his fleet by water envelop alternately each of those cities. This would be a difficult combination for us successfully to resist.”[5]

Lee improved fortifications and built up a defense in depth around Savannah with what forces he could muster. The Rebels blocked Federal land advances in the area for two and a half years. But the attention of Washington leaders was elsewhere; they did not try to exploit the potential for further joint operations at Port Royal.

USS Wabash

USS Wabash, flagship for Flag Officer DuPont at Port Royal

Two factors contributed to DuPont’s success there. The first was technology. For centuries, the sailing warship—subject to vagaries of wind—had little chance against shore batteries firing bigger guns from stable and usually higher platforms protected by stone ramparts and capable of employing heated shot.

But the navy had come a long way, demonstrating technical innovation and excellence in warship production. It was advancing rapidly in steam and propeller propulsion and was leading the ordnance revolution of the era. Larger steam men-of-war armed with heavier and longer range guns firing explosive shells were evening the odds.

9 Dahlgren gun

9″ Dahlgren cast-iron shot and shell gun

Like DuPont at Port Royal, Admiral David G. Farragut would blow past powerful fortifications below New Orleans (April 1862) and again in Mobile Bay (August 1864) with greater but manageable casualties, isolating the forts into surrender.

Sea power did not always work alone, however. Farragut (in July 1862) and Admiral David D. Porter (in April 1863) could sneak their squadrons past massed batteries on Vicksburg heights with manageable damage but could not take the city on their own. Charleston Harbor became a cul-de-sac of fire and destruction for another Union squadron (April 1863)—including presumably impregnable ironclad monitors—defying all attempts at capture from the sea.

Given lack of institutionalized coordination and an incomplete appreciation of sea power or power projection, victory at Port Royal and elsewhere also depended on close and personal partnerships between senior commanders. U. S. Grant would agree that much of his success was due his relationships with salty compatriots like Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote (Forts Henry and Donelson, February 1862), Farragut and Porter.

From Grant’s first engagement at Belmont, MO (November 1861), through Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, Vicksburg, Chattanooga, and finally on to Richmond, the navy provided heavy artillery support and pushed aside all Rebel water forces while transporting, supplying, and feeding Federal armies along all rivers and coasts.

Grant’s and Porter’s Vicksburg campaign culminating in its surrender on July 4, 1863, would become the most prominent example of joint operations. Under the leadership of Admiral Porter and Major General Alfred Terry, the bloody capture of Fort Fisher, North Carolina (January 1865) was the ultimate Civil War amphibious operation.

Savannah and Charleston finally fell to the encircling hosts of General Sherman (December 1864, February 1865), but he rushed from Atlanta to Savannah for the express purpose of reestablishing logistic support from the sea and depended upon it from then on. What if these cities had been taken by joint operations in the spring of 1862?

[1] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

[2] Williamson Murray and Wayne Wei-siang Hsieh, A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton & Oxford, 2016), Chapter 5, Stillborn between Earth and Water: The Unfulfilled Promise of Joint Operations.

[3] Murray and Wei-siang, A Savage War, 128.

[4] John D. Hayes, ed., Samuel Francis Du Pont: A Selection from His Civil War Letters, vol. 1, The Mission: 1860– 1862 (Ithaca, NY, 1969), p. 285.

[5] R. E. Lee to General S. Cooper, January 8, 1862, OR, Ser. 1, vol. 6, p. 367.

Atop Reel Ridge: Examining Lee’s Fallback Position North of Sharpsburg

By 8:30 a.m. on the morning of September 17, 1862, the left end of Robert E. Lee’s line on the Sharpsburg Heights crumpled under repeated Federal blows. The Confederates of Alexander Lawton’s and J.R. Jones’s divisions had been forced back from their positions defending the high ground adjacent to the Dunker Church. Lee’s left still had three and one-half miles of open land behind it before reaching the banks of the Potomac River, but the commanding general feared for the fate of his left flank.

The red dots indicate Confederate artillery positions on Reel Ridge and around the Piper Farm during the Union breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Any Federals advancing further would do so into a concave formation of Confederate artillery.

 

Immediately, Lee began cobbling together his fallback position from the Dunker Church Plateau atop the Reel Ridge west of the Hagerstown Pike. He pulled together as many pieces of artillery he could find, a number that eventually totaled approximately 25 guns. Arriving infantry soon buttressed the defensive position, and the Federals never truly tested Lee’s position on Reel Ridge.

Reel Ridge proved crucially important to the preservation of the Army of Northern Virginia on September 17. The host of Confederate cannoneers and their pieces contained Israel Richardson’s breakthrough at the Sunken Road. Indeed, the Confederate artillerists outnumbered their Union counterparts on that part of the field: at least 25 guns to 6 Federal smoothbore pieces. One of those Southern guns even dealt Richardson his mortal wound from atop Reel Ridge, which effectively stopped any further Union incursions beyond the Sunken Road.

This annotated view from atop Reel Ridge shows the commanding nature of the position Lee chose as his left flank’s fallback point.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Reel Ridge, which is currently owned by the Civil War Trust. The view from the top of the ridge is spectacular. Standing there and looking towards the Sunken Road gives one a clear picture of why Confederate artillery dominated the Federal artillerists in the area, and why any further advance by Richardson’s blue-coated infantry seemed improbable.

Since a visit to the top of Reel Ridge does not happen often, I thought I would share with the readers at Emerging Civil War the view from the top, with a few of my own annotations mixed in.

Maryland, My Maryland? Jefferson Davis and the Maryland Campaign of September 1862

Confederate soldiers splashing across the Potomac River in early September 1862 jubilantly bellowed out the tune “Maryland, My Maryland” as they marched into the Old Line State. Just months earlier, with the war escalating around the Confederate capital of Richmond, this feat seemed impossible. As the Southern army placed its collective foot on the soil of Maryland, one of the Confederacy’s early war aims was about to be realized.

Recognizing Maryland’s status as a border state caught between North and South, the Confederate Congress issued a series of resolutions on December 8, 1861 about the state’s status and their desire to join it with their fledgling nation. “[I]t is the desire of this government, by appropriate measures, to facilitate the accession of Maryland, with the free consent of her people, to the Confederate States,” the Congress resolved. Confederate successes in the summer of 1862 now made this goal a possibility.

Despite the joyous mood of the Confederate soldiers entering Maryland, Robert E. Lee, commanding those soldiers, remained skeptical that Maryland’s citizens would return the favor in kind. “I do not anticipate any general rising of the people in our behalf,” Lee wrote President Jefferson Davis on September 7. The general sought Davis’ assistance days before, requesting that the President send former Maryland governor and Southern supporting exile Enoch Lowe to rouse Marylanders to the Confederate cause.

Himself excited by Confederate fortunes north of the Potomac River, Davis told Lee to issue a proclamation to the people of Maryland declaring “the motives and purposes of your presence among them at the head of an invading army.” The President then listed out a blueprint of eight resolutions and statements Lee could draw from for the proclamation he ultimately issued on September 8.

Jefferson Davis’ enthusiasm for Confederate advances in the summer of 1862 did not end with the stroke of his pen, however. Seizing on Lee’s request for Enoch Lowe to aid the Confederate effort in Maryland, President Davis decided to accompany Lowe to the Potomac River as far north as Leesburg. Perhaps Davis could join his troops in Maryland next.

A “special train” carrying Davis and Lowe left Richmond on September 7 and made its way to Rapidan Station, where Davis notified Lee of his journey. Davis’ September 7 correspondence with Lee is unfortunately lost to history. Thus, his true intentions in traveling north are unknown. Southern newspapers theorized the purpose of Lowe’s visit, though: “placing Maryland within the political association of the Confederate States.” Correspondents in Richmond could only surmise what the departure of Davis truly meant.

Robert E. Lee also could not divine Davis’ reasons for heading north. Regardless, the general did not believe Maryland was a good place for his commander-in-chief. “While I should feel the greatest satisfaction in having an interview with you,” Lee said, “I cannot but feel great uneasiness for your safety should you undertake to reach me.” The trek would be “very disagreeable,” the general warned. It would also expose Davis to the risk of capture by Federal patrols ranging throughout northern Virginia. Exercising extreme caution in this case, words alone on paper would not do for Lee. To further convince Davis of the dangers plaguing his northern excursion, Lee sent his staffer Walter Taylor to intercept the President before he reached Leesburg.Taylor departed the Confederate camps outside Frederick, Maryland at midday on September 9. That night, he slept at the Harrison home in downtown Leesburg, which served as Lee’s quarters shortly before crossing into Maryland. Walter Taylor reached Warrenton on September 10 and found that his journey was for naught: Davis turned around on September 8, headed back to the Confederate capital.

Enoch Lowe continued his efforts to bring Maryland into the folds of the Confederacy even though Davis no longer traveled with him. It is possible that Walter Taylor met Lowe and the two traveled to Winchester together. From the Shenandoah Valley town, Lowe continued to champion Maryland’s supposed dormant Confederate sympathies. “He said Maryland, long disappointed, had been perfectly taken by surprise on the entrance of our army, and that when it was seen to be no mere raid, 25,000 men would flock to our standard, and a provisional government would be formed,” wrote one eyewitness. The lofty goal of 25,000 Marylanders rising to fight under the Confederate banner never materialized, as Lee predicted. Perhaps as few as 200 men signed up with the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederate foray into Maryland failed to fulfill Southern hopes for a fourteenth star on its flag.

Confederate efforts to bring another state under the country’s flag came off on October 4, 1862 in Frankfort, Kentucky but did not amount to much except a great deal of fanfare. Southerners held similar hopes for Maryland, but their dreams fizzled before there was a chance. The Charleston Mercury quickly denounced Davis’ trip north as nothing more than “merely for recreation and to have a quiet talk with the Governor [Lowe]. If Lowe is to be proclaimed Provisional Governor, it is to be hoped the people will rally to him, and our army keep in front of him, otherwise the affair will resemble the Provisional Government of Kentucky, which was rather a farce, tending to alienate rather than encourage the inhabitants.”

Establishing a provisional government in Maryland, it turned out, was the least of the Confederacy’s worries in the Old Line State in September 1862 and the Southern nation’s dreams of enticing more states to its cause and expanding its boundary to the Mason-Dixon Line never came to fruition. Maybe September 1862 represented the best odds for that to happen, or perhaps by then it was a foregone conclusion and Jefferson Davis, Enoch Lowe, and the Confederate Congress were only whistling into the wind.

Steve Bartman and the Battle of Chancellorsville

In the past few weeks ESPN has been re-running the Alex Gibney film Catching Hell. The film focuses on Chicago and it’s reaction to Steve Bartman in 2003 after the Cubs lost that year’s National League Championship Series (NLCS). There is also a discussion of Boston and Bill Buckner after his error in the 1986 World Series.

Watching the film, I was struck by the group reaction to the Bartman play among the Cub fans and certain players, which led directly to the team’s collapse in Game 6. As I thought about it, I realized the Bartman story can help people understand the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in 1863. 

For those who may not be familiar with the story: In 2003 the Cubs had enjoyed a magical regular season that raised hopes in Chicago. They entered the playoffs looking for the first World Series appearance since 1945 and their first title since 1908 (95 years at the time), and led the NLCS 3 games to 2 over the Florida Marlins (now Miami Marlins), having lost Game 5 in Miami. Game 6 occurred in Chicago on October 14, and the Cubs led 3-0 going into the top of the 8th inning. A foul ball along the third base line was deflected by a fan (later identified as Steve Bartman), and the Cub outfielder, Moises Alou, reacted in frustration. The Marlins started a flurry of hits, helped by a flubbed shortstop play by Alex Gonzalez that would have ended the inning with the Cubs up 3-1 or 3-2; instead, Florida buried the Cubs with 8 runs in the 8th, and the Cubs could score no more. Game 7 the next night went back and forth, but the Marlins again (for the third straight game) beat the Cubs and went on to their second World Series in franchise history, eventually defeating the New York Yankees. Steve Bartman, meanwhile, became the scapegoat in Chicago, blamed for the defeat.

In the film, Cub fans going to Game 6 are seen admitting their nervousness, and one stated “I’ve never been so nervous before a game.” Steve Lyons, who called the game for Fox Sports, said the whole stadium was “waiting for something crazy to happen.” Some people felt it in the 7th Inning Stretch, when Bernie Mac sang “champs” in Take Me Out to the Ballgame. But the Bartman play in the 8th (in the words of Cubs 1st Baseman Eric Karros) “took the air out of the stadium.” The team seemed to tense up, and that explains both Gonzalez’ error and the meltdown of Chicago pitching. After Game 6 many in Chicago felt it was already over; some Cubs players even booked flights home after Game 7, expecting not to go to the World Series.

This, in broad parallel, is the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. After an energetic winter and spring during which Major General Joseph Hooker reformed, rebuilt, and re-energized the army, in late April 1863 it set off for its next contest against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The last clear-cut offensive victory the Army of the Potomac had won over the Confederates was at Williamsburg, almost exactly a year earlier. A year is a long time to an army in combat, and that record weighed on the Federals as much as the 95-year drought weighed on the Cubs in 2003. Indeed, a sense of nervous energy emanates from some of Hooker’s statements before the battle and the way some of his commanders strained to get into the fight.

Lee’s unexpected strong reaction on May 1 caused Hooker to pull back, and a strange lethargy set in among the Federals. Seizing the opening created by this passivity, Lee flanked the Army of the Potomac, launching Stonewall Jackson’s famed flank attack on the evening of May 2. Jackson’s corps routed the Union XI Corps on the army’s western flank, driving it back over 2 miles before darkness ended the fighting. The attack did not win the battle, but left the Confederates threatening to win. A strong Federal defense, and/or a resolute counterattack, would recover the Army of the Potomac’s fortunes.

Yet the Army of the Potomac was like the Cubs after Bartman – the air had gone out of them. The troops themselves fought well on May 3, but the leadership was defeated and steadily pulled back. Hooker also ordered the 20% of his army at Fredericksburg to save the other 80% at Chancellorsville – a panicked order which shows how far he had melted down mentally.

Even thought the fighting on May 3 ended with the Federals in a strong position south of U.S. Ford, the battle was all but over in the mind of Hooker and many of his commanders. After some skirmishing on May 4 and 5, the Army of the Potomac quit the field. After the battle the XI Corps became the scapegoat for the army because of its failure to hold Jackson – much like Steve Bartman became the scapegoat for the foul ball play in 2003.  In both cases, the overall group saw these events as the turning points where it all went wrong and spiraled into the inevitable defeat.

The next time Catching Hell is on, take the time to watch it, as the group dynamics among the Chicago Cubs fans and players echo those of the Army of the Potomac leadership 140 years before.

Top: Steve Bartman and Moises Alou go for a foul ball in Game 6, with one out in the Top of the 8th. 

Bottom: Jackson’s flank attack on May 2.

Notice the reorientation of the Union line and the isolated position of the XI Corps “behind” the new Union position.