How did the James river serve as a natural defense during The US Civil War?

How did the James river serve as a natural defense during The US Civil War?

In a text I read it the following was stated:

“Although Richmond's proximity to Washington, D.C., was hazardous strategically, Virginia's topography-the Appalachian Mountains and rivers, such as the James and Rappahannock, that flowed east to west-served as a natural defense against invasion.”

But how did rivers act as a natural defense to prevent the North from invading into Virginia?


Any river can provide a natural defence if it is difficult to cross it with an army. In these cases, defenders can concentrate their forces at bridges and fords and so deny an enemy access.

The James River was navigable by ocean-going ships as far as Richmond at the time of the Civil War, and this made it an effective barrier against the North. The Rappahannock River had several fords where crossings could be made, and some of these were the scenes of some of the fiercest pitched battles of the American Civil War.


Any attack across any significant body of water, at any time, puts the attacker at a stiff tactical disadvantage.

  1. Only a few points where crossing is possible (fords, bridges, boat landings), allowing defenders to focus on those points
  2. Crossing is slow (wading a ford, or funneling your troops through available boats / across a bridge), leaving you exposed and giving the enemy time to bring in reinforcements
  3. No cover while crossing (both from being spotted and being shot at)
  4. Troops in vulnerable disarray for some time after the crossing
  5. If opposing bank is held in force, uphill fighting against prepared positions with no room for maneuvering
  6. No real avenue of retreat (see points 1-3 above)

Depending on the time frame / geography, you might also be out of effective range of your own archers / artillery /… on the far side of the body of water, while being in effective range of the enemy's.

This makes even medium-sized rivers like the Rappahannock tricky to cross. As this video states, the crossing of the Rappahannock was…

… the first riverine crossing under fire in American military history.

All this makes a river a "natural defense". Easier to defend than open ground, in any case.


The Overland Campaign of 1864

Spotsylvania Battlefield, Virginia. Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Steve Hajjar

Gordon Rhea Hallowed Ground, Spring 2014

The Overland Campaign, some 40-odd days of maneuver and combat between the Rapidan and James Rivers, pitted the Civil War’s premier generals — Lt. Gen Ulysses S. Grant for the Union, and Gen. Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy — against one another in a grueling contest of endurance and guile.

Grant’s strength was unwavering adherence to the strategic objective of neutralizing Lee’s army. While he frequently stumbled, the overall pattern of his campaign was that of an innovative general employing thoughtful combinations of maneuver and force to bring a difficult adversary to bay. Lee’s strengths were his resilience and the fierce devotion that he inspired in his men. He, too, made mistakes, often misreading Grant and placing his smaller army in peril, only to devise a creative solution that turned the tables on his adversary. In many respects, the generals were similar. Each favored offensive operations and were willing to take risks each labored under handicaps, although of different sorts and each was bedeviled by subordinates who often seemed incapable of getting things right. Grant and Lee were about as evenly matched in military talent as any two opposing generals have ever been.

The stage for this dramatic campaign was set with the Union Army of the Potomac’s repulse of Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania in July 1863. Federal commanders frittered away their Gettysburg victory, and the next spring, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia waited behind formidable earthworks along the Rapidan River, confident as ever of success on its native soil.

Eighteen sixty-four was an election year, and President Abraham Lincoln harbored well-founded misgivings about his prospects for a second term. Unless Union armies produced victories, the presidency risked going to a candidate willing to negotiate with the South, enabling the Rebels to achieve through political means the ends that had eluded them by force of arms.

Union armies in the West could boast tangible successes, but the Old Dominion remained Lee’s preserve. Lincoln’s answer was to summon Grant, the architect of his Western victories, hoping that he might work his magic in the East. Grant, newly minted commanding general of the United States Army, planned a campaign that capitalized on the North’s advantages in manpower and materiel. No longer would Federal armies squander their resources attempting to capture and hold enemy territory the destruction of Rebel armies was now their goal. Henceforth, the armies of the United States would move in concert, preventing the Confederates from shuttling troops between fronts. Gone were the days of short battles followed by months of leisure under Grant, Union armies would fight without quarter until they had destroyed the secessionists’ capacity to resist.

Grant delegated to Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman prime responsibility for managing the Union war effort in the West and turned his own energies to defeating Lee. Employing the same principles that governed his national strategy, Grant focused irresistible force against his wily opponent. The Army of the Potomac, double the size of Lee’s host , was to press across the Rapidan River and attack the Army of Northern Virginia the Army of the James, commanded by Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, was to advance up the James River, capture the Confederate capital of Richmond and continue into Lee’s rear and a third Union body, under Maj. Gen. Franz Sigel, was to thread south through the Shenandoah Valley, threatening Lee’s left flank and disrupting the rebel army’s supply lines. Snared in a three-pronged vice, Lee’s army would face certain destruction.

Grant intended the Army of the Potomac to bear the brunt of the combat and decided to make his headquarters there. The army’s commander, Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, had performed ably at Gettysburg, but his failure to bring Lee to battle since then had cost him the administration’s confidence. Grant decided to keep Meade on, delegating to the Pennsylvanian management of the army and its battles, while Grant supervised the overall conduct of the war. Aggressive and willing to take risks, Lincoln’s new commander-in-chief soon found himself hobbled by his cautious subordinate. The tension between these two men and their incompatible military styles became a dominant theme of the spring campaign.

Rather than attacking the Rebels head-on, Meade elected to cross the Rapidan downriver from Lee, negating the strong Confederate river defenses. Once over the Rapidan, the Union army found itself in a forbidding forest of tangled second-growth known as the Wilderness. Assuming that Lee could never react quickly enough to attack him in the dense thickets, Meade chose to halt there to give his supply wagons time to catch up.

Lee hoped to take the initiative, but scant supplies and uncertainties over when and where Grant’s three armies would attack stayed his hand. Lee rightly perceived the Army of the Potomac as the chief threat, and he also correctly predicted Meade’s flanking movement through the Wilderness. He did nothing, however, to ensure that he would fight Grant there, as shifting downriver risked opening his western flank to attack and enabling the Federals to block his routes of retreat. Equally disconcerting was Butler’s appearance near Richmond if Butler attacked the Confederate capital, Lee would have to hurry troops to the city’s defense.

And so Lee spread cavalry along the Rapidan and awaited Grant’s advance. He was determined to defend the river at all costs if Grant forced him back to Richmond, the war in the East would become a siege that the Confederates must necessarily lose.

Saunders Field, Wilderness Battlefield, Virginia. Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Buddy Secor

The Battle of the Wilderness

May 4, 1864, saw the Army of the Potomac crossing the Rapidan into the Wilderness, 20 miles downriver from Lee. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock’s Union II Corps settled into camps around Chancellorsville, near the Wilderness’s eastern reaches. A few miles west, near Wilderness Tavern, stood Maj. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps, and immediately north of Warren’s encampments rose smoke from fires kindled by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps. Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside’s independent IX Corps, bringing up the Union rear, camped north of the river. That night, the Union army rested, waiting for its supply wagons to arrive.

On learning of this movement, Lee decided to thrust his army toward Grant along three roads that ran parallel to the Rapidan. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps was to advance along the Orange Turnpike, in tandem with Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill’s Third Corps on the Orange Plank Road, aiming to pin Grant in the Wilderness. Meanwhile, Lee’s First Corps, under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, was to slip below the Union army and turn north, driving the enemy back across the Rapidan. Lee’s plan was risky, since the Rebel commander, already outnumbered two-to-one, was dividing his army into three parts, each separated by several miles of intractable forest. If Grant divined Lee’s scheme, he could focus irresistible strength against individual segments and inflict terrible damage. Lee, however, saw no alternative to attacking, as retreating would inevitably result in the destruction or investiture of his army.

Mistakes by Union cavalry aided the Confederate strategy. Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, newly appointed head of the Army of the Potomac’s mounted arm, gave the critical assignment of patrolling the roads toward Lee to Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson, his least experienced general heading his smallest division. Misunderstanding what was expected of him, Wilson mounted tentative probes toward the Confederates, found nothing and camped for the evening. Undetected, Ewell and Hill marched within a few miles of the Union army’s encampments and bivouacked for the night.

Near daylight on May 5, Ewell and Hill launched their dual advance, catching the Federals unprepared. Determined to regain the initiative, Grant ordered Meade to attack. Warren’s corps was repulsed by Ewell on the turnpike, as was Sedgwick’s, and combat flared for hours between antagonists invisible to one another in the dense spring foliage. Still hoping to break Lee’s defenses, Meade ordered another assault, this time against Hill on the plank road, spearheaded by Hancock’s corps and some of Sedgwick’s men. But Hill’s line held and, by nightfall, the soldiers of both armies were entrenching within yards of each another.

Lee’s boldness and the inability of Union commanders to coordinate their attacks had stymied the Federal offensive. Grant, however, now understood that Lee had divided his army. Determined to exploit this opportunity, he directed Meade to concentrate a massive onslaught against Hill on Orange Plank Road. Lee, for his part, expected Grant to renew his hammering and instructed Longstreet to shift to the plank road to support Hill.

Shortly after sunrise on May 6, Hancock drove Hill back through the woodland, and, for a few breathless moments, it seemed as though Lee would be captured and his army defeated. In a dramatic reversal of fortune, Longstreet’s corps arrived and repulsed the Federals, saving the Army of Northern Virginia. Going on the offensive, the Confederates assailed Hancock’s flank, drove the Federals back to the Brock Road and squeezed in two spirited attacks before dark.

Lee’s aggressive response had stymied Grant in the Wilderness, but the Union commander refused to concede defeat. Determined to recover the initiative, he directed Meade to shift south to Spotsylvania Court House, 10 miles below the Wilderness. The maneuver, Grant predicted, would place the Federals between Lee and Richmond, forcing the Rebels to leave the Wilderness and fight him on ground of his own choosing. Shortly after dark on May 7, the Union juggernaut started south.

Spotsylvania Battlefield, Virginia. Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park Steve Hajjar

The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House

Lee remained puzzled about Grant’s next move. Perhaps the Federals meant to renew their hammering in the Wilderness perhaps they intended to sidestep to Fredericksburg and press south along the Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Potomac Railroad or maybe they were preparing to march toward Spotsylvania Court House. Hedging his bets, Lee held his army in the Wilderness and sent his First Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson following Longstreet’s wounding, south along a makeshift trail hacked through the forest. Unable to find a suitable resting place, Anderson marched until dawn, stopping a few miles northwest of Spotsylvania Court House.

Meanwhile, Confederate cavalry waged a determined action to delay the Union army’s advance. Fighting dismounted, the Rebel horsemen constructed successive lines of fence-rail barricades across the Brock Road. Shortly after sunrise on May 8, Lee’s cavalry chief, Maj. Gen. James Ewell Brown “Jeb” Stuart, ordered the fought-out riders to make a desperate final stand along a ridge called Laurel Hill, overlooking the Spindle family farm. Anderson’s corps, Stuart learned, had bivouacked a short distance away, and soon Rebel infantry filled the gaps in Stuart’s thin line.

Warren, assuming that the gray-clad forms on Laurel Hill belonged solely to Rebel cavalry, ordered an attack. The Spindle Farm became a slaughter pen, as Confederates raked the advancing Union line with concentrated fire, bringing Warren’s offensive up short. Grant’s drive to take Spotsylvania Court House had failed.

Deploying Sedgwick’s Corps on Warren’s left flank, Meade ordered another attack near sundown. Ewell’s Confederates, however, arrived in the nick of time and extended the Rebel line eastward to repel Sedgwick’s offensive. The next day — May 9 — Burnside extended the Federal line southeast, gaining the important Fredericksburg Road, and Hancock’s troops hooked onto Warren’s right, reaching west to the Po River. To Lee’s relief, Hill soon arrived from the Wilderness and slid into position across from Burnside. By afternoon on May 9, the armies were digging in Grant’s lines oriented south toward Spotsylvania Court House and Lee’s troops looking north, barring the Union advance.

While the two armies faced off behind formidable earthworks, a simmering feud between Meade and Sheridan erupted into open warfare, with serious consequences for the campaign. Meade, it seems, faulted Sheridan for failing to brush the Rebel horsemen aside during the advance toward Spotsylvania Court House, and Sheridan resented Meade meddling in his management of the cavalry. The two men quarreled bitterly, and Meade reported Sheridan’s insubordination to Grant, expecting the commander’s support. Exasperated by Meade’s inability to beat Lee in the Wilderness or to win the race to Spotsylvania Court House, Grant sided with Sheridan.

With Grant’s blessing, Sheridan headed south, taking the entire Union cavalry corps with him. He expected Stuart to pursue, giving him an opportunity to fight the Confederate cavalry. Events unfolded as Sheridan had hoped, and, on May 11, he defeated Stuart’s cavalry at Yellow Tavern and mortally wounded the Rebel cavalry chief. Lost in Sheridan’s euphoria over his victory was the consequence of his absence at Spotsylvania Court House. Sheridan had left Grant blind, while Stuart had left Lee enough troopers to reconnoiter Union positions and screen the Confederate infantry. The release of the Union cavalry arm was to cost the Federals dearly.

Grant, meanwhile, initiated a series of assaults intended to break Lee’s Spotsylvania line. Late on May 9, he ordered Hancock to slip around the western end of the Rebel army and attack the Confederate flank. Lee’s left, however, was firmly anchored on a loop of the Po River. To reach the Confederates, Hancock had to cross the river twice: first as he marched south, then again when he attacked eastward. Hancock achieved his first Po crossing before nightfall, but darkness prevented him from completing his maneuver. The Union II Corps settled in for an uneasy evening, separated by the Po from the rest of the Army of the Potomac.

Lee pounced on the chance to gobble up the isolated Union corps. The next morning — May 10 — Confederates under Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early charged Hancock’s Federals and forced them to make a costly retreat across the Po. Hancock escaped, but the lesson was clear: the Army of Northern Virginia was full of fight, and its commander was as vigilant as ever.

Grant, however, was not deterred. Reasoning that in attacking Hancock, Lee must have weakened his line somewhere, Grant ordered a massive offensive across Lee’s entire front at 5:00 that evening. But once again, slipshod coordination thwarted his plan. First, Hancock had to extricate himself from the Po and resume his post on the western end of the Union formation. Then, Warren decided that he could successfully attack Laurel Hill, and headquarters assented. Warren’s assault, however, deteriorated into a bloody repetition of his failed charges against the same objective on May 8, forcing headquarters to delay the army-wide offensive until 6:00 p.m. to give Warren time to regroup.

The postponement threw another component of the intended offensive out of whack. Maj. Gen. Horatio Wright, who had taken command of the VI Corps following the death of Sedgwick at the hands of a Confederate sharpshooter, had adopted a proposal made by Col. Emory Upton, one of his most aggressive officers. The trick to attacking Lee’s daunting earthworks, Upton urged, was to secretly mass troops near the Rebel entrenchments and send them forward at a clip. By pressing ahead without stopping to fire, the soldiers could overrun the entrenchments and cleave a breach large enough for a fresh force to exploit.

Upton’s plan sounded promising, so Wright gave the colonel 12 hand-picked regiments and incorporated the attack into the evening’s battle plan. The supporting force consisted of a II Corps division under Brig. Gen. Gershom R. Mott. No one, however, alerted Mott that the assault was postponed, so, promptly at 5:00 p.m., his men started forward, only to be badly mauled and driven back by the Rebel defenders. Then at 6:00 p.m., Upton, ignorant of Mott’s repulse, launched his own attack. The charge succeeded, and Brig. Gen. George Doles’s sector of Confederate line fell to Upton’s troops. Mott’s division, however, was no longer available to assist, and fresh Confederate troops rushed to the endangered sector, driving Upton’s men back to the Union lines. Upton’s attack, like so many before it, had failed because of mistakes by the Union high command.

But Grant was not about to quit when Upton’s abortive assault held promise. What if he used a corps instead of a brigade-sized force, Grant mused. And what if the support consisted, not of a division, but of two army corps?

By now, Grant had discovered a weakness in Lee’s line. Near the center of the Rebel position, Lee’s engineers had run the earthworks northward, then bent them around and to the south to form a large salient. Nearly half a mile wide and half a mile deep, the protrusion — soldiers called it the Mule Shoe after its shape — would be difficult for the Rebels to defend. Grant determined to send an entire corps — Hancock’s force, some 25,000 men strong — crashing into the Mule Shoe while two more corps – the IX on the left, and the VI on the right — assailed the Mule Shoe’s sides, pinching off the huge bubble. Meanwhile Warren’s corps was to pound Anderson’s Rebels on Laurel Hill to keep them from reinforcing the beleaguered Mule Shoe. After overrunning the salient and ripping Lee’s line in half, the victorious Federals hoped to dispose of the Rebel army’s remnants piecemeal.

During the night of May 11, concealed by a blinding rain storm, Hancock slogged from the right wing of the Union army to the Brown family farm, half a mile from the Mule Shoe. That evening, Lee studied reports from the field and concluded that Grant was retreating toward Fredericksburg. Aggressive as ever, Lee decided to remove artillery from the Mule Shoe and bring the guns back to good roads in his rear for an anticipated pursuit of Grant. And so, while the Union army deployed to attack the Mule Shoe, Lee unwittingly weakened the very spot Grant had targeted.

As morning approached, Ewell, whose troops occupied the Mule Shoe, became convinced that his line was in danger and asked for the artillery back. But before the guns could return, Hancock’s troops attacked, clambering over the ramparts and sending some 3,000 Confederate prisoners to the rear. Grant’s plan was succeeding perfectly.

Riding into the Mule Shoe, Lee took personal control of the effort to repel the Federal hordes. His plan was to hurry reinforcements into the salient to detain the Federal onslaught until he could construct a new defensive line along high ground to the rear. Leading a scratch force of North Carolina and Virginia troops, Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon drove back the Unionists in the Mule Shoe’s eastern sector. Brig. Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur’s brigade charged into the Mule Shoe’s western leg, recapturing a stretch of entrenchments. And successive attacks by Brig. Gens. Abner Perrin, Nathaniel H. Harris and Samuel McGowan recovered more line on Ramseur’s right, including critical high ground at a bend in the salient aptly called the Bloody Angle.

Fighting in the Mule Shoe raged unabated throughout May 12 and into the early morning of May 13. Wright’s VI Corps joined the attack, as did Burnside’s IX. In one of the war’s most brutal episodes, the Confederates sent into the Mule Shoe by Lee held their ground for nearly 20 hours of face-to-face combat. Around 3:00 a.m. on May 13, Lee ordered the Mule Shoe’s defenders back to the new defensive line. As the sun rose over Spotsylvania County, Grant learned that Lee now confronted him from a new position stronger than ever.

Stymied again, Grant strove to regain the initiative. During the stormy night of May 13–14, Warren and Wright made a forced march toward the Rebel army’s unprotected right flank below Spotsylvania Court House. Muddy roads slowed their progress, and they failed to reach their objective until after sunrise. The Rebels seemed prepared to receive them, so Grant called off the attack. Later in the day, Lee shifted Anderson’s First Corps from the left of his line to his right, blocking Warren and Wright’s planned offensive. The armies now faced each other in lines running generally north to south, with Lee still controlling the approaches to Spotsylvania Court House.

The rain stopped on May 17, and Grant hatched yet another plan. Since Lee was expecting an attack against the southern part of his line, Grant decided to attack from the north. During the night of May 17–18, Wright returned to the blood-stained fields near the Mule Shoe, and at first light, he and Hancock charged toward the new line that Ewell had occupied after the battle of May 12.

Once again, Grant had surprised Lee, but the ruse went for naught. Secure behind their earthworks, Ewell’s Confederates applauded the attack as an opportunity to settle old scores. In an impressive display, Ewell’s artillery broke the assault. It was later said that Confederate infantrymen patted the smoking tubes of the guns with affection.

Grant concluded that Lee’s Spotsylvania line was indeed impregnable. Bad news also arrived from other fronts. On May 15, Rebels under Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge had defeated Sigel at New Market, wrecking the Union offensive in the Shenandoah Valley. The next day, another Rebel force cobbled together by Gen. Pierre G. T. Beauregard had beaten Butler at Drewry’s Bluff, near Richmond. Worried for the safety of his army, Butler withdrew to Bermuda Hundred, in the angle formed by the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers. As Grant saw it, his subsidiary armies had failed miserably. It was up to the Army of the Potomac to defeat Lee.

Haw's Shop Battlefield, Virginia. Shenandoah Sanchez

Undeterred, Grant devised yet another plan to entice Lee from his earthworks. This time, he would send Hancock on a march to the southeast in hopes that Lee would try to snag the isolated Union corps. When Lee went for the bait, Grant would attack with the rest of his army, plunging down Telegraph Road to destroy whatever force Lee dispatched against Hancock.

On the night of May 20, Hancock started his diversionary march, passing through Bowling Green and entrenching near Milford Station, 20 miles southeast of the armies. At the same time, Grant withdrew Warren’s corps to Telegraph Road, where it waited to pounce on any force that Lee sent against Hancock. The next day, Lee learned of the Union movements and concluded that Grant intended to march south along Telegraph Road, the direct route to Richmond. To thwart Grant’s expected move, Lee rushed Ewell east to Mud Tavern, where Telegraph Road crossed the Po.

Grant became increasingly concerned. He had heard nothing from Hancock — Rebel cavalry controlled the countryside toward Milford Station — and Ewell’s Confederates were now entrenching across Telegraph Road, blocking the direct route to Richmond. Worried that Hancock might be in danger, Grant evacuated his Spotsylvania Court House lines, sending part of his army to follow Hancock’s route through Bowling Green while the rest pushed south on Telegraph Road to overwhelm Ewell. Once again, a Union operation that had begun as an offensive thrust was assuming a decidedly defensive tone.

Nightfall saw a Union army in disarray. Near Milford Station, Hancock sparred with Confederates sent from Richmond to reinforce Lee. On Telegraph Road, Burnside ventured south but was halted by Ewell’s defenses. Turning around, the IX Corps entangled with the VI Corps, creating a messy traffic jam. Warren’s corps, meanwhile, followed in Hancock’s footsteps, stopping for the night at Guinea Station.

Lee still had no clear idea of Grant’s intentions, but signs increasingly pointed to a Union move south. The next good defensive position was the North Anna River, 25 miles away, and Lee started his army in that direction. Blind to the fact that Lee was marching past his recumbent troops — Sheridan’s horsemen had not yet returned — the Federals let Lee’s army slip by unhindered.

May 22 witnessed Lee’s exhausted troops cross the North Anna and encamp south of the river, along the Virginia Central Railroad. Lee’s concern was to protect the rail line, which served as an important link to the Shenandoah Valley.

Grant pushed south as well, following in Lee’s wake. On May 23, the Union army converged at Mount Carmel Church, a handful of miles above the North Anna River. Hancock’s corps routed a brigade of South Carolinians from a redoubt at Chesterfield Bridge and entrenched along the river’s northern bank Burnside extended the Union line upriver from Hancock, securing the crossing at Ox Ford and Warren’s troops marched upriver to Jericho Mills, threw pontoon bridges across and went into camp on the southern bank. Grant had breached the river line without a serious fight.

Learning that Federals had crossed at Jericho Mills, Lee ordered Hill to drive them back. The ailing corps commander, however, misjudged the size of the Union force and sent only one division into battle. Attacking Warren’s corps, Hill’s troops were overwhelmed and retired to the Virginia Central Railroad.

Lee was in serious trouble. Part of Grant’s army had crossed the river and was threatening his western flank. With Richmond only 25 miles away, Lee had little room to maneuver. That evening, Lee, his chief engineer and several subordinate generals devised an ingenious plan to deploy the Army of Northern Virginia into a wedge-shaped formation, its apex touching the North Anna River at Ox Ford and its legs reaching back to anchor on strong natural positions. When the Federals advanced, Lee’s wedge would split Grant’s army in two, affording the Confederates a strong defensive position and perhaps even permitting a counterattack. Lee’s plan cleverly suited the military maxim favoring interior lines to the North Anna’s topography.

The next morning, Grant concluded that Lee was retreating and crossed the river in pursuit. Confined to his tent with dysentery, Lee could do little more than hope that his defensive line held. As evening came on, Grant discovered Lee’s clever deployment and ordered his troops to start digging. Soon the Union army had entrenched, hugging close against the wings of Lee’s wedge. Lee was locked in place, but his position remained too strong for Grant to attack. Stalemated once again, the hostile armies stared across at one another, pressed cheek-to-jowl south of the river.

For the third time, Lee had stymied Grant, and for the third time, Grant looked to maneuver to break the impasse. A short distance east of the armies, the North Anna merged with other rivers to form the Pamunkey. Grant decided to disengage from Lee under cover of darkness, cross to the river’s northern bank and sidle 30 miles southeast to Hanovertown. The maneuver would bring the Union army 17 miles from Richmond, and provisions could be shipped in from Chesapeake Bay and unloaded at White House Landing on the Pamunkey. A quick dash across the Pamunkey, and the Confederate capital would fall, bringing the war to a rapid close.

On the night of May 26–27, Grant stole across the North Anna and headed east. The next morning, Lee learned that Grant was gone, and that Union infantry had materialized at Hanovertown. Lee quickly marched to interpose between Grant and Richmond. On May 28, Union and Confederate mounted forces collided south of the Pamunkey at Haw’s Shop in a battle that raged most of the day. While Union cavalry gained possession of the field, Confederate horsemen led by Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton succeeded in discovering the location of Grant’s army while shielding Lee’s whereabouts from Grant.

Lee’s next move in his deadly chess game with Grant was to assume a defensive position along Totopotomoy Creek, a marshy stream that intersected Grant’s route to Richmond. Union probes found the Rebels entrenched behind formidable works lining the creek’s southern bank, and attempts to break the Confederate line failed. Once again, Grant faced the prospect of stalemate.

Federal fortunes brightened on May 30, when Warren crossed Totopotomoy Creek downstream from Lee and drove west toward the Rebels. Recognizing an opportunity to attack Warren’s unsupported corps, Lee directed Early, now commanding the Confederate Second Corps, to attack Warren with his own troops and Anderson’s First Corps. The offensive started well enough, as Early’s lead elements slammed into Warren. Anderson’s Confederates, however, made little headway, and Early’s attempt to turn Warren’s flank ended in a bloody repulse for the Rebels. The grueling campaign seemed to have dulled the Army of Northern Virginia’s offensive capacity.

Burnett’s Tavern was a ramshackle wooden structure at a star-shaped intersection a handful of miles below the armies. Known as Cold Harbor, the intersection was to figure importantly in the campaign’s next stage. By seizing the road junction, Grant hoped to gain an unobstructed route to Richmond and a chance to strike Lee’s flank and rear.

On the last day of May, Maj. Gen. William F. “Baldy” Smith’s XVIII Corps arrived from Bermuda Hundred to reinforce Meade. Concerned that Smith intended to occupy Cold Harbor, Lee dispatched cavalry to reconnoiter, and a mounted engagement soon crackled around the crossroads. As the combat heated, Lee forwarded more cavalry toward Cold Harbor and persuaded Beauregard to send a division — Maj. Gen. Robert F. Hoke’s command — from the Richmond defenses. By evening, Sheridan had driven the Rebel horsemen from the strategic crossroads and looked on as Hoke’s division marched up and erected a defensive line west of the intersection, facing Sheridan.

Grant and Lee rushed more troops toward the emerging Cold Harbor front. During the night, Wright’s corps headed for the intersection orders went out for Smith to march that way as well and Lee directed Anderson to start south and join Hoke. All night, troops wearing blue and gray packed the roads in a race for Cold Harbor.

On the morning of June 1, Anderson’s lead elements attacked Sheridan at Cold Harbor, only to be driven back by concentrated fire from the Union cavalrymen’s repeating carbines. Forming next to Hoke, Anderson extended the Rebel formation northward. Soon the Union VI Corps tramped into Cold Harbor, and by late afternoon, Smith’s troops had arrived as well, falling into place on the VI Corps’ right.

By evening on June 1, Union and Confederate infantry confronted each other along a north-south axis. Around 6:30 p.m., anxious to maintain the initiative, Wright and Smith attacked and breached the Rebel line. Although darkness fell before the Federal commanders could achieve complete success, the results were heartening to the men in blue. Each side had lost about 2,000 soldiers, but the Federals were well positioned to exploit their gains.

Hoping to finally strike a killing blow, Grant hurried Hancock’s corps toward Cold Harbor. But dark roads and an improvident shortcut delayed Hancock’s march, and not until noon on June 2 did his winded men straggle into position. Grant decided to postpone the attack until June 3, a delay that would prove fatal, as Lee, now fully alerted to Grant’s intentions, had time to shift more soldiers — Breckinridge’s troops, recently arrived from the Shenandoah Valley, and Hill’s corps — to the Cold Harbor sector. All day, the Rebels prepared for the expected Union assault.

Grant’s decision to attack Lee’s formidable entrenchments the morning of June 3 has provoked strong criticism. The general’s assessment, however, was grounded in a sober appraisal of the situation. Grant believed that the constant regimen of marching and fighting had severely weakened Lee’s army. After all, Lee had failed to take the offensive at the North Anna, had permitted Grant to cross the Pamunkey unopposed, had fumbled at Bethesda Church and had almost been overwhelmed on June 1. The Rebel army, it seemed, was a depleted force, ripe for the plucking.

The Army of the Potomac, however, was flush with fresh troops from Washington and with Smith’s XVIII Corps. Delaying made no sense — more time would only give the Rebels a chance to bring up reinforcements. Moreover, the Republican convention was about to convene, and what better gift could Grant offer President Lincoln than the destruction of the main Confederate army and the capture of Richmond? Aggressive by nature, Grant decided to proceed. If the offensive worked, the rewards would be tremendous failure would simply represent another reverse in a campaign filled with reverses, and Grant would try another tack. In short, the consequences of not assaulting — forfeiting the chance for quick victory — seemed worse than attacking and failing.

Grant’s plan called for an army-wide offensive across a six-mile front. Meade was responsible for overseeing the assault but resented his subordinate position and thoroughly disapproved of Grant’s hard-hitting tactics. He expressed his discontent by doing little the record reveals no efforts to reconnoiter, coordinate the corps or tend to the things that diligent generals ordinarily do before sending troops against fortified lines. The victims of Grant’s and Meade’s untidy command relationship would be the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac.

A signal gun sounded at 4:30 a.m. on June 3, and the Union army’s southern wing — Smith’s, Wright’s and Hancock’s corps — stepped forward under a deadly hail of lead. Hancock achieved a brief breakthrough, but was quickly repelled. Wright’s troops advanced a short distance and began digging in, and in Smith’s sector, three brigades marched into a pocket lined with Rebel muskets and cannon and sustained horrific casualties. The attack was finished in less than an hour. Later in the morning, Warren and Burnside made disjointed attacks in the battlefield’s northern sector and were unable to make headway. By noon, Grant adjudged the offensive a failure and called it off.

The Union assault at Cold Harbor was a disaster, although stories of fields strewn with blue-clad corpses convey a distorted impression of what really happened. A few sectors saw massive slaughter, but along much of the battle line, Union losses were minor, and many Confederates had no idea that an offensive had even been attempted. Historians have suggested numbers ranging from 7,500 to well over 12,000 casualties, all supposedly incurred in a few terrible minutes. A careful analysis of the units engaged, however, suggests that the grand charge at Cold Harbor generated more like 3,500 Union casualties. Total Union casualties for the entire day approximated 6,000 Confederate losses were about 1,500.

For several days, sharpshooters plied their deadly trade, and corpses rotted under the scorching summer sun. After a tragic interval of delays and misunderstandings, Grant and Lee finally negotiated a truce to remove the dead and wounded. For most injured soldiers lying between the armies, the truce came too late.

Looking to break the impasse at Cold Harbor, Grant again turned to maneuver, this time with an eye to severing Lee’s supply lines. Union cavalry rode toward Charlottesville, aiming to wreck the Virginia Central Railroad, and Union forces in the Shenandoah Valley headed toward Lynchburg, terminus of the James River Canal. Once again, Lee danced to Grant’s tune, sending Early’s corps to protect Lynchburg and dispatching cavalry to intercept the Union mounted raid, ultimately clashing at Trevilian Station.

The heart of Grant’s new plan was to dash boldly across the James River and capture Petersburg, severing the main rail links to Richmond. After dark on June 12, the Union force disengaged and streamed south. Fearing that Grant might glide past his right flank and attack Richmond, Lee concentrated on blocking the roads leading to the Confederate capital. Grant, however, had a different plan in mind. The Overland Campaign from the Rapidan to the James was coming to a close, and the Petersburg Campaign was about to begin.

Trevilian Station Station Battlefield, Virginia. Shenandoah Sanchez

The Importance of the Overland Campaign

Who was the victor? The answer lies in how one defines winning. Grant lost about 55,000 men during the Overland Campaign, and Lee about 33,000, allowing the Rebel to claim a victory of sorts. However, measuring losses against the respective sizes of the armies at the campaign’s outset — Lee had about 65,000 men, and Grant some 120,000 — Lee’s subtractions exceeded 50 percent, whereas Grant’s were about 45 percent. And while each army received substantial reinforcements during the campaign, Grant’s capacity to augment his force was vastly greater than Lee’s. Simple arithmetic suggested that Grant would ultimately prevail.

If the commanders are scored by tactical successes, Lee comes out the clear winner. Although consistently outnumbered, he achieved victories at the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, the North Anna River, Totopotomoy Creek and Cold Harbor, thwarting Grant in each of those battles. But if the campaign is viewed in its entirety, Grant comes out ahead. Although he sustained multiple tactical reverses, he never considered himself defeated, and he continued to advance his strategic goal through maneuver. The Rebel commander’s grand objective was to hold the line of the Rapidan, and he failed Grant’s goal was to negate Lee’s army as an effective fighting force, and in that he largely succeeded. By the end of the campaign, Grant had pinned Lee into defensive earthworks around Richmond and Petersburg. While he had not destroyed Lee’s army, he had gutted the Rebel force’s offensive capacity and seriously diminished its ability to affect the outcome of the war.

With the stalemate at Petersburg, the Confederacy’s clock ticked off its final hours. The Army of Northern Virginia’s demise, and with it the demise of the Confederacy, was but a matter of time.


Featured Article

Super Spy From Wales
Union agent Pryce Lewis had his share of close calls

On June 29, 1861, two strong gray horses were pulling a carriage along the James River and Kanawha Turnpike when a group of Confederate cavalrymen overtook them. A sergeant ordered the driver to halt, then asked for passes. Sleeping inside the carriage was a nattily dressed young gentleman who seemed just as annoyed to have his nap curtailed as he was to be asked for a pass.

Speaking with a British accent, the traveler complained he was unaware a vacationing English gentleman required a pass to travel on a public highway, and said they had come &ldquoFrom Guyandotte, and before that Louisville, and before that Lon­don.&rdquo The sergeant informed the traveler, identified as Pryce Lewis, Esq., that he would need to accompany him to their camp to get a pass from Colonel George S. Pat­ton. He had no clue he&rsquod be escorting a Union spy right to his commander&rsquos tent.

Escorted to the camp on foot, Lewis began haranguing Patton, commanding officer of the 1st Kanawha Infantry Regiment, about his soldiers&rsquo tyrannical behavior. &ldquoMy good sir!&rdquo exclaimed Patton, &ldquoWe have no intention to stop Englishmen traveling in our country.&rdquo Turning to his adjutant, Patton ordered a pass to be made out to Mr. Pryce Lewis. The traveler then offered the colonel a cigar, and the two smoked and chatted. When Lewis suggested they open a bottle of champagne, Patton just laughed and asked where they&rsquod find any&mdashto which Lewis replied: &ldquoIf you will allow your orderly to go to the road and order my carriage up, we will have some that is good.&rdquo

As they were enjoying what Lewis called the &ldquogood fellowship developed by sips of champagne,&rdquo Patton described the camp&rsquos exact location to his newfound friend. Their camp was 10 miles outside Charleston, he said, just east of the Kanawha River, and the 900 soldiers within had orders to defend the 40 miles of turnpike between Guyandotte and Charleston. Lewis accepted an invitation to dine with Patton, and afterward, over a glass of port, the Englishman regaled his host with stories of fighting the Russians in Crimea. The traveler left with a map and directions to a country inn between the camp and Charleston.

Once in his room at the inn, Lewis took out a notebook and began to write, committing to paper everything Patton had told him&mdashinformation that he knew would please his superior in Cincinnati, Allan Pinkerton, who in turn would pass it on to Union General George McClellan. In fact, the only truthful statement Lewis had made in his encounter with the Southerners was his name everything else was an invention of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, which had sent him on a secret mission to reconnoiter Confederate forces in western Virginia.

Lewis was no British aristocrat. He had been born in a small town in Wales in 1831, the son of an illiterate woolen weaver. After the industrial revolution crippled the wool industry, the young man emigrated to America in 1856 in search of a fresh start. Trading on his intelligence and charisma, Lewis secured a job as a salesman with the London Printing and Publishing Company, touting such titles as History of the Indian Mutiny and the three volumes of History of the War With Russia. He read his wares from cover to cover, absorbing information that would later prove invaluable.

During a trip to Detroit, Lewis fell into conversation with a personable fellow named Charlton who shared his love of literature. Charlton eventually revealed that he worked for a detective agency run by a Scot called Allan Pinkerton, who was always on the look out for new talent. Lewis&rsquo first reaction was to laugh and exclaim: &ldquoA detective! Me?&rdquo But within a week he was the latest addition to the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
Lewis&rsquo first major assignment was in Jackson, Tenn., where he was sent in the spring of 1861 to investigate the murder of a bank clerk. He was still pursuing leads in that case when war was declared.

Pinkerton, a fervent abolitionist, offered his services to the Union, and in May moved the agency&rsquos headquarters from Chicago to Cincinnati. From then on the agency took its orders from McClellan, commander of the Department of the Ohio, who was preparing to invade western Virginia in 1861. McClellan wanted Pinkerton to ascertain the approximate strength of the Confederate army in the region before the assault began&mdasha mission that would require a spy to penetrate deep into Virginia without arousing suspicion. Pinkerton chose Lewis, along with Sam Bridgeman, who had fought in the Mexican War. Lewis would adopt the persona of a vacationing English gentleman wearing London-tailored clothes&mdasha frock coat, red leather shoes and silk top hat&mdashwhile Bridgeman posed as his manservant.

The morning after his encounter with Patton, Lewis&rsquo carriage arrived in Charleston. Lewis took the last room available at the Kanawha House Hotel, opposite one occupied by General Henry Wise, commander of the Kanawha Valley forces, the officer who had hanged John Brown three years earlier. In the next 10 days Lewis ingratiated himself with the Southern officers, plying them with champagne, port and cigars supplied by Pinkerton. He also regaled them with tales of his service in the Crimea, stories plucked from the pages of History of the War With Russia. Such was the &ldquoEnglishman&rsquos&rdquo popularity that they invited him to inspect a Confederate camp and dine with them. Lewis later made copious notes of all he had seen, including the disposition of the 5,000 men under Wise&rsquos command.

The only Confederate who seemed suspicious of Lewis was Wise himself. The general ordered the Englishman to his room one evening for an interview, and apparently remained unconvinced by Lewis&rsquo story. But when Wise summoned Patton to give his opinion, the colonel was so effusive about the foreigner that Wise let the matter drop.

Rattled by the interrogation nonetheless, Lewis decided to depart Charleston using a route reconnoitered by Bridgeman. Shortly after dawn on July 11, Lewis&rsquo carriage headed out of Charleston bound for Richmond&mdashat least that&rsquos what he told his newfound Confederate friends. But 10 miles east of Charleston, at the village of Browntown, Bridgeman turned onto a track that led through Logan County and across the state line to Kentucky.

Lewis and Bridgeman arrived at Pinkerton&rsquos office in Cincinnati on July 16, five days after McClellan began his invasion of western Virginia. The information the pair had obtained was considered so important that McClellan ordered Lewis to deliver it in person to Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox, the officer tasked with seizing Charleston.

On July 11, Cox had led his 3,000-strong force into Virginia, but his advance was checked by the Confederates at Scary Creek, approximately 30 miles west of Charleston, on July 17. Four days later Cox was still pondering his next move when an aide informed him that Lewis had arrived with a letter from McClellan. Ushered into Cox&rsquos headquarters aboard a moored steamer, Lewis furnished the general with the details of his escapade, &ldquorelating my conversation with Colonel Patton, my interview with Wise and my visit to the camp at Charleston.&rdquo Lewis &ldquogave the num­ber of troops in Wise&rsquos command as 5,000, including those under Patton and Browning, told the number of rations issued at Charleston, and the number of pieces of artillery there.&rdquo He also advised Cox that his own force was better armed and in better physical condition than the Confederates in and around Charleston.

Cox wasted no time in exploiting the new intelligence. The next morning, as Lewis returned to Cincinnati, Cox marched his men north, then wheeled southeast to attack Wise&rsquos army in the rear. Surprised, the Confederates fled south, abandoning Charleston to its fate. Not only had Cox captured Charleston, he also gained control of the strategically important Kanawha River. Coming in the wake of the Battle of Bull Run disaster, Cox&rsquos victory provided a morale boost for the Union. As The New York Times reported on September 18, 1861, &ldquonowhere else on all the theatre of war have the Union armies so well sustained their cause as in Western Virginia&hellip.Gen. Cox enjoys the unquestioned honor of winning the important valley of Kanawha for the Union&hellipwhat is Bull Run for the rebels by the side of it?&rdquo

Lewis spent the next six months in Washington helping Pinkerton round up Southern spies, among them the beautiful Rose O&rsquoNeale Greenhow, a Southern belle who ended up in the Old Capitol Prison. But in February 1862 Pinkerton asked Lewis to head back into enemy territory to look for Timothy Webster, a double agent who had been undertaking valuable work for the Union in the South. Pinkerton described Webster as &ldquoa tall, broad-shouldered, good-looking man of about forty years of age&hellipa genial, jovial, convivial spirit, with an inexhaustible fund of anecdotes and amusing reminiscences, and a wonderful faculty for making everybody like him.&rdquo

Webster had ingratiated himself with opera­tives of the Rebel underground network in Baltimore, a city whose wartime loyalties were deeply divided. Throughout the fall of 1861 dozens of secessionists were arrested and imprisoned thanks to information supplied by Webster. The Confederates congratulated Webster on his good fortune in escaping capture, but they soon began to doubt the authenticity of this enigmatic man who seemed to lead a charmed life.

Their growing suspicions coincided with a decline in Webster&rsquos health. When he was confined to his room with inflammatory rheumatism in January 1862, Confederate detective Samuel McCubbin moved into the same establishment, Richmond&rsquos Monu­mental Hotel, to keep an eye on him if he was a Northern spy, the Confederates reckoned that it wouldn&rsquot be long before his handlers tried to establish contact.

At first Lewis refused to countenance the idea of visiting Richmond, telling Pinkerton &ldquoit would be folly&rdquo to go to Richmond because he had arrested numerous Southern sympathizers in Washington&mdashmost of whom had subsequently been deported to Virginia, and many of whom were known to have made their way to the Southern capital. Pinkerton reminded Lewis that he would be doing the Union a great service, since Webster might possess information vital to the offensive being planned by McClellan. Lewis relented, and on February 18 he and another agent, Irishman John Scully, were rowed across the Potomac into Virginia, and then entrained for Richmond. They arrived on February 26, posing as two British cotton merchants, and checked into the Exchange and Ballard Hotel. Later that day they visited other hotels in the area, asking whether a Timothy Webster was a guest. Eventually they found him at the Monumental.

The pair paid Webster only a brief visit on that first day, promising to return the following evening for a longer discussion. But when they entered Webster&rsquos room the next day there was another visitor at the sick man&rsquos bedside who introduced himself as Samuel McCubbin, a friend of Webster&rsquos. After a few minutes of small talk, he departed and the three Union agents got down to business. But their discussions were soon interrupted by a knock at the door. In walked George Clackner, a Confederate detective, accompanied by a second man who Lewis recognized at once: Chase Morton, who had been arrested by Lewis and Scully in Washington a couple of months earlier on accusations of spying. When no evidence was forthcoming, Morton had been sent south, and now he was on hand to identify Lewis and Scully as Northern detectives.

Lewis and Scully were taken to different jails and tried separately on charges of being enemy aliens in the employ of the Lincoln administration, &ldquofound within the fortifications of Richmond taking a plan thereof.&rdquo Found guilty, both were sentenced to hang on April 4. Scully broke down upon hearing the verdict and asked to see a priest, but Lewis wrote to the British Consul in Richmond, &ldquostating who I was, the condition I was in, and asking to see him at once.&rdquo The counsel, Frederick Cridland, wasn&rsquot granted an interview with Lewis until April 3, the day before the execution. Lewis took that opportunity to plead with Cridland for help, saying he was a British citizen in need of Her Majesty&rsquos protection.

Cridland obtained an audience with Secretary of State Judah Benjamin and asked for a stay of execution, on grounds that the defendants hadn&rsquot been given adequate time to prepare their defense. By 8 a.m. on April 4, Lewis had heard nothing further from Cridland and presumed the worst. But as Lewis picked at his breakfast that morning, the prison priest entered his cell and said, &ldquoI have good news, President Davis has respited you.&rdquo The following day the priest brought him a copy of the Richmond Dispatch detailing developments.

The paper&rsquos editors made it plain they disapproved of the clemency shown the Union spies: &ldquoFor reasons satisfactory to ourselves, the principal one being the fact that the authorities were averse to any publicity being given to the affair, we have refrained for several days past from mentioning that two men, Pryce Lewis and John Scully, had been tried and condemned to be hung as spies. The execution was to have taken place yesterday&hellipbut the ex­ecu­tion has been postponed for a short time on a respite granted the parties by the president, but we are assured it will come off at an early day.&rdquo Then the paper added that &lsquothe condemned have made disclosures affecting the fidelity of several persons.&rsquo Lewis couldn&rsquot believe what he was reading. Surely Scully hadn&rsquot squealed to save his own neck? He bribed a guard to take a note to Scully asking if he&rsquod talked, and the reply came that evening: &ldquoI have made a full statement and confessed everything and it would be better for us if you would do the same.&rdquo

Lewis never did cooperate with the Rebels, but Scully&rsquos confession was the cast-iron proof the Confederates required to arrest Webster, who was tried and convicted of being a Union spy. On April 29, Webster was hanged in front of a large crowd in the former Richmond fairgrounds, the first spy to meet such a fate during the war. Though Scully&rsquos confession saved him and Lewis from the gallows, they both remained incarcerated in Richmond&rsquos notorious Castle Thunder until September 1863.

Scully never again worked as a detective, but once Lewis had recovered from his prison stay he established his own detective agency in New Jersey. For the next 30 years he pursued cases across the country before retiring at the turn of the century. Eager for an income, Lewis then penned an account of his wartime service, but no pub­lisher was interested, and Lewis was reduced to running messages for a legal firm to pay his rent.

One of the lawyers, Anson Barnes, helped Lewis compose a letter to the War Pensions Bureau in Washington explaining his unusual predicament: He was neither an American citizen (though he had lived in the country for more than half a century) nor had he fought as a soldier in the Civil War. But while he wasn&rsquot legally entitled to a pension, he deserved one as a reward for the outstanding service he had given the U.S. government.

No matter how many times Lewis sent his letter, however, the response was always the same: He failed to meet the criteria for a war pension. Barnes urged Lewis to apply for American citizenship, so he would be entitled to some help, but the Englishman saw that as a betrayal. &ldquoI&rsquove served this government well and taken the Secret Service oath of loyalty over and over again,&rdquo he told Barnes. &ldquoBut when it comes to swearing that I&rsquoll take arms against my own sovereign, I&rsquoll see them damned.&rdquo

In December 1911, Lewis was living in a cramped attic studio in Jersey City, barely able to feed himself, when he threw himself off the 370-foot-high World Building in New York City. The suicide of a nameless old man was reported in all the city&rsquos papers&mdashas was the revelation of his identity a couple of days later.

The following month a full-page article appeared in Harper&rsquos Weekly detailing Lewis&rsquos shabby treatment at the hands of the authorities. The account explained that Lewis had been a war hero, a spy who had &ldquohabitually imperiled his life for the United States&hellipone who had achieved more than a hundred soldiers.&rdquo Yet his reward, thundered Harper&rsquos, was to be abandoned by the government. Shame on them, for &ldquoit was the sum of his achievements for the country that makes the country&rsquos neglect of him seem so sordid&hellipthe government in dire need used him. The government at ease coldly drove him to death.&rdquo

Gavin Mortimer, who writes from Paris, is the author of Double Death: The True Story of Pryce Lewis, the Civil War&rsquos Most Daring Spy.


Colonial National Historical Park

Colonial National Historical Park comprises two of the most historically significant sites in English North America: Historic Jamestowne, the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607 and Yorktown Battlefield on the York River, the final major battle of the American Revolutionary War in 1781. Situated on the Virginia Peninsula and connected by the 23-mile scenic Colonial Parkway, these two sites represent the beginning and end of English colonial America.

Photo By : James River Association


James, Frank and Jesse

The violence that erupted along the Missouri-Kansas border before the Civil War continued throughout the conflict as Union and Confederate sympathizers waged guerrilla warfare on behalf of their interests. Both sides instigated atrocities against the regular armies and against non-combatants, including women and children. This backdrop of brutality resulted in participants on either side being portrayed as heroes or villains, depending on one’s political perspective, and led to myth-making of a magnitude that is astonishing. Few participants better represent this dichotomy than Frank and Jesse James: they were either guerrillas, robbers, and vengeful murderers or victimized young Robin Hoods, seeking revenge for the atrocities they and their families suffered.

It is easier to trace the origin of the myth of Frank and Jesse James as American Robin Hoods than it is to verify many of the facts, especially those of their early life. Historians have tried but are thwarted by a lack of verifiable data. Rumor and imaginative storytelling, presented as facts by early newspapers and dime store novelists, have been perpetuated and repeated until the weight of the myth far outweighs hard data. The historian William A. Settle, for one, described many of the books and articles about the James brothers as “carelessly written” and “frequently in error, [although] they still claim to be authentic.”

". the James brothers grew up steeped in Southern tradition."

What is known about the brothers is that they were born in Missouri in 1843 and 1847, respectively. Their father, Robert James, was a Baptist minister who moved to Clay County, Missouri, with his wife, Zerelda Cole James, to assume the pastorate of the New Hope Baptist Church outside of Kearney, Missouri. Robert James was a small slaveholder who, in addition to owning six or seven slaves, accumulated 275 acres of unencumbered farmland, 30 sheep, six head of cattle, three horses, and a yoke of oxen. The area in which they settled was known as Little Dixie, a region along the Missouri River with the highest concentrations of enslaved persons in the state consequently, the James brothers grew up steeped in Southern tradition.

In addition to Frank and Jesse, there were two other children born to Robert and Zerelda: Robert, who died five days after being born, and Susan. When Robert Sr. died, Zerelda married Benjamin Simms, who is believed to have been harsh to Frank and Jesse, and who Zerelda eventually left. After Simms’s death six months later, Zerelda married Dr. Reuben Samuel, who was reported to have been good to the James children. The Samuels had four more children, Archie, John, Sarah, and Fannie.

When the Civil War broke out, Frank James served in the Missouri State Guard (MSG). After the First Battle of Lexington , MSG commanders Sterling Price and Claiborne Fox Jackson could not hold their position in Missouri and retreated. Frank, who had fallen ill, surrendered, accepted amnesty, and pledged not to fight against the Union, but he violated his parole and joined William Clarke Quantrill’s band of guerrillas (again, the date and circumstances have not been documented). It is known that Frank was with Quantrill during his raid on Lawrence , Kansas, on August 21, 1863. The exact date that Jesse joined the guerrillas is undocumented, but it is known that he and Frank rode with “Bloody Bill” Anderson , a former lieutenant of Quantrill’s, in 1864, after Quantrill’s Raiders splintered into smaller groups. Alongside Anderson, they participated in the Centralia Massacre of 22 out of 23 Union soldiers on the train.

Only myth and oral tradition suggest what impelled the brothers to join the guerrillas, but considering the atrocities committed against the families in Clay County by the Union Army and Kansas jayhawkers alike, it is assumed that the brothers were seeking revenge for some affront to their family or themselves. They were not leaders in the Quantrill or Anderson bands and, despite participation in some atrocities committed by the groups, returned to their family farm at the end of the war without notoriety.

The James brothers lived and worked on the Kearney farm after the war, even joining the local Baptist Church. But lawlessness was still the scourge of the Missouri countryside as bands of wartime irregulars, unable to readjust to civilian life, harassed the citizenry. The state militia was often called in to disrupt the felons, although sometimes the cure was worse than the disease. When and why Frank and Jesse turned to robbery is debated by the many chroniclers of their life. Most of the crimes attributed to them cannot be validated decisively, and again, myth and legend prevail. Regardless, former guerrillas were held accountable for many of the robberies, and men named and hunted by authorities were often former members of Quantrill’s band and known friends and associates of the James brothers. One such, Allan Parmar, even married the James’s sister, Susan.

While some historians question the association of the James brothers with early robberies charged to them at the Clay County Savings Association bank at Liberty, at Russellville, and others, there is general agreement that it was they who robbed the Daviess County Savings Association at Gallatin, Missouri, on December 7, 1869, and killed Captain John W. Sheets. With this crime, the reputation of Frank and Jesse James was solidified and a price put on their heads. Many robberies over the next 13 years were associated with one or both of them, along with their James-Younger Gang.

"Shortly after the fair robbery, the gang took up a new form of thievery – train robbery."

The man most responsible for glorifying the post-war deeds of Frank and Jesse James was John Newman Edwards, editor and co-founder of the Kansas City Times, a former Confederate adjutant for General Joseph O. Shelby and a staunch supporter of the Lost Cause. After the James brothers robbed the Kansas City Industrial Exposition in 1872, Edwards published an editorial, The Chivalry of Crime, in which he downplayed the shooting and wounding of a young girl and—without actually naming them—compared the perpetrators to “men who might have sat with Arthur at the Round Table . . . .” Edwards contended that these men were ostensibly innocent of crimes after the war because they were forced into a life of banditry when pursued by those seeking revenge on them for their wartime behaviors. The audacity of the crime, which took place at an event with thousands of attendees, contributed equally to Edwards’s mythology. Shortly after the fair robbery, the gang took up a new form of thievery – train robbery. While not the first to do so, they perfected the technique, starting with their first robbery of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad about midway between Council Bluffs and Des Moines, Iowa.

The James brothers were aided and abetted by their neighbors, living openly in Clay County and surrounding areas despite the publicity surrounding their crimes and the rewards offered for their capture. Many in the area felt aggrieved by banks who charged high interest rates and by the railroad companies—for which they were taxed to subsidize—and then charged unreasonable rates to ship their products. This, coupled with Edwards’s glorification of the James gang as Robin Hoods who stole only from Union sympathizers and who had suffered at the hands of Union soldiers, provided Frank and Jesse with a certain amount of protection for many years. Alongside government agents, the private detectives hired by the railroads were stonewalled by the residents of Little Dixie, making the brothers’ capture more difficult. Referring to Jesse James as the “last rebel of the Civil War,” historian T.J. Stiles argues that the anti-Unionist and anti-Reconstruction sentiments urged by Edwards (and the gang itself) were the leading source of support and myth-making for Jesse James. Other historians place more emphasis on public distrust of banks and railroads, but whatever the mechanism, the James brothers managed to craft a public image that elicited sympathy rather than scorn for their crimes.

In 1881, Governor Thomas T. Crittenden, weary of the violence and concerned that Missouri was viewed by Easterners as a home for bandits and miscreants, offered a reward of $5,000 each for Frank or Jesse James delivered to the sheriff of Daviess County, plus a reward of $5,000 each if either was convicted for participating in the train robberies at Glendale or at Winston or for the murder of John W. Sheets, William Westfall, or John McCulloch. Finally, a similar reward was offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone else involved in the crimes.

"The [Ford] brothers were indicted for first degree murder [of Jesse James] and sentenced to hang, but on the very day they were sentenced, Governor Crittenden gave them an unconditional, full pardon."

The reward money proved tempting to Bob Ford, one of the newer members of Jesse’s gang. He talked with his brother Charley, another gang member, about killing Jesse for the reward. Then in January 1882, he met with Governor Crittenden who agreed to give Ford a pardon and the reward money in exchange for his assistance in capturing Jesse. Whether Crittenden knew that Ford’s intention was to assassinate Jesse is not clear. Nonetheless, having gained Jesse’s confidence, Ford spent several days with him and his family in St. Joseph , Missouri. After breakfast on the morning of April 3, 1882, Jesse, Bob Ford, and his brother Charles went into the living room. While Jesse’s back was turned, Bob Ford shot him in the back of the head, just behind the ear. The Ford brothers fled the house, wired the governor that Jesse James was dead, and gave themselves up to the authorities in the town. The brothers were indicted for first degree murder and sentenced to hang, but on the very day they were sentenced, Governor Crittenden gave them an unconditional, full pardon.

Initially the public assumed that Frank James would seek revenge for his brother’s death. This was not the case. Instead, with the help of Edwards, who negotiated on his behalf, he arranged to surrender. On October 4, 1882, Frank James, with Edwards at his side, walked into the governor’s office where a group of newspapermen were assembled, and surrendered. He was taken by train to Independence, Missouri, and held in the local jail pending trial. He denied that he had participated in any crimes perpetuated by the band in the four years prior to his surrender.

The sympathy in which Frank and Jesse were held by those in Jackson County who had suffered the abuse of the jayhawkers and the infamous General Order No. 11 , made conviction of Frank James problematic. The press argued not only for his acquittal but that his efforts on behalf of the South in the war earned him a “not guilty” verdict. There was also a serious lack of concrete evidence of his involvement in the crimes for which he was accused. On August 21, 1883, Frank James went on trial in Gallatin, Missouri, for the murder of Frank McMillan. He was found not guilty, but his legal problems were not over.

After plans to try James in Jackson County for the robbery at Blue Cut fell through due to legal wrangling, Frank was transported to Huntsville, Alabama, to await trial for the 1881 robbery of paymaster Alexander Smith. James was again found not guilty. In February 1885 prosecutors dropped the case brought against him for the 1876 Missouri Pacific robbery when their key witness died. Although other jurisdictions indicated that they were interested in trying James for crimes committed in their towns, no additional charges were brought against Frank James. He lived the rest of his life in relative quiet. He died on February 18, 1915, at the family farm in Kearney, Missouri. He was cremated to prevent his body from being stolen from the grave. Eventually his ashes were interred with those of his wife in a Kansas City cemetery.

There is no doubt that Jesse and Frank James were outlaws who committed murders without compunction. The myth of their valiance is one crafted by their champion, John Newman Edwards, and nourished by the resentment of Missourians for treatment—real or imagined—received before, during, and after the Civil War. Whether seen as villains or revenging angels depends on one’s perspective, but what cannot be denied is that the legend of Frank and Jesse James will forever be associated with Missouri’s border conflicts and the politics of the Civil War era.


Contents

Military situation Edit

The Peninsula campaign Edit

The Peninsula campaign was the unsuccessful attempt by McClellan to capture the Confederate capital of Richmond and end the war. It started in March 1862, when McClellan landed his army at Fort Monroe and moved northwest, up the Virginia Peninsula beginning in early April. Confederate Brig. Gen. John B. Magruder's defensive position on the Warwick Line caught McClellan by surprise. His hopes for a quick advance foiled, McClellan ordered his army to prepare for a siege of Yorktown. Just before the siege preparations were completed, the Confederates, now under the direct command of Johnston, began a withdrawal toward Richmond. [8]

The first heavy fighting of the campaign occurred in the Battle of Williamsburg (May 5), in which the Union troops managed some tactical victories, but the Confederates continued their withdrawal. An amphibious flanking movement to Eltham's Landing (May 7) was ineffective in cutting off the Confederate retreat. In the Battle of Drewry's Bluff (May 15), an attempt by the United States Navy to reach Richmond by way of the James River was repulsed. [8]

As McClellan's army reached the outskirts of Richmond, a minor battle occurred at Hanover Court House (May 27), but it was followed by a surprise attack by Johnston at the Battle of Seven Pines or Fair Oaks on May 31 and June 1. The battle was inconclusive, with heavy casualties, but it had lasting effects on the campaign. Johnston was wounded and replaced on June 1 by the more aggressive Robert E. Lee. Lee spent almost a month extending his defensive lines and organizing his Army of Northern Virginia McClellan accommodated this by sitting passively to his front, waiting for dry weather and roads, until the start of the Seven Days. [9] Lee, who had developed a reputation for caution early in the war, knew he had no numerical superiority over McClellan, but he planned an offensive campaign that was the first indication of the aggressive nature he would display for the remainder of the war. [9]

Planning for offensives Edit

Lee's initial attack plan, similar to Johnston's plan at Seven Pines, was complex and required expert coordination and execution by all of his subordinates, but Lee knew that he could not win in a battle of attrition or siege against the Union Army. It was developed at a meeting on June 23. The Union Army straddled the rain-swollen Chickahominy River, with the bulk of the army, four corps, arrayed in a semicircular line south of the river. The remainder, the V Corps under Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter, was north of the river near Mechanicsville in an L-shaped line facing north–south behind Beaver Dam Creek and southeast along the Chickahominy. Lee's plan was to cross the Chickahominy with the bulk of his army to attack the Union north flank, leaving only two divisions (under Maj. Gens. Benjamin Huger and John B. Magruder) to hold a line of entrenchments against McClellan's superior strength. This would concentrate about 65,500 troops to oppose 30,000, leaving only 25,000 to protect Richmond and to contain the other 60,000 men of the Union Army. The Confederate cavalry under Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart had reconnoitered Porter's right flank—as part of a daring but militarily dubious circumnavigation of the entire Union Army from June 12 to 15—and found it vulnerable. [10]

Lee intended for Jackson to attack Porter's right flank early on the morning of June 26, and A.P. Hill would move from Meadow Bridge to Beaver Dam Creek, which flows into the Chickahominy, advancing on the Federal trenches. (Lee hoped that Porter would evacuate his trenches under pressure, obviating the need for a direct frontal assault.) Following this, Longstreet and D.H. Hill would pass through Mechanicsville and join the battle. Huger and Magruder would provide diversions on their fronts to distract McClellan as to Lee's real intentions. Lee hoped that Porter would be overwhelmed from two sides by the mass of 65,000 men, and the two leading Confederate divisions would move on Cold Harbor and cut McClellan's communications with White House Landing. [11]

McClellan also planned an offensive. He had received intelligence that Lee was prepared to move and that the arrival of Maj. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson's force from the Shenandoah Valley was imminent (McClellan was aware of Jackson's presence at Ashland Station, but did nothing to reinforce Porter's vulnerable corps north of the river). [12] He decided to resume the offensive before Lee could. Anticipating Jackson's reinforcements marching from the north, he increased cavalry patrols on likely avenues of approach. He wanted to advance his siege artillery about a mile and a half closer to the city by taking the high ground on Nine Mile Road around Old Tavern. In preparation for that, he planned an attack on Oak Grove, south of Old Tavern and the Richmond and York River Railroad, which would position his men to attack Old Tavern from two directions. [13]

The armies that fought in the Seven Days Battles comprised almost 200,000 men, which offered the potential for the largest battles of the war. However, the inexperience or caution of the generals involved usually prevented the appropriate concentration of forces and mass necessary for decisive tactical victories.

The Confederate army was not a proper unified command as the Army of the Potomac was, but simply a thrown-together collection of all the troops that could be gathered for the defense of Richmond. This contributed to the poor coordination of the army during the battles and the inability of Robert E. Lee to destroy the Union army.

The average strength of a division in the Army of the Potomac was about 9000 men (including non-combatants) with Casey's division being the smallest at around 7000 and Morell's being the largest at 11,000 men. The average strength of Confederate divisions varied from 12,000 men (A.P. Hill's division) to 5000 men (Theophilus Holmes's division). Confederate reports listed only combat troops and excluded non-combatants such as couriers, staff officers, and wagon drivers. Jackson's command was severely understrength from the Valley campaign and his own division had less than 2000 men, most of them being in the Stonewall Brigade while the brigades of Samuel Fulkerson and John R. Jones were down to nearly regimental size and were held in reserve for most of the Seven Days Battles. Ewell's three brigades numbered 3000 men total. Jackson was reinforced with the brigade of Alexander Lawton, recently arrived from Georgia, and numbering 3500 men. This brought his total strength to around 8000 men.

D.H. Hill's division numbered around 7700 men, having numbered close to 10,000 before the heavy losses at Seven Pines. They were reinforced with Roswell Ripley's brigade, newly arrived from North Carolina, and numbering 2300 men, bringing the total strength of Hill's command to 10,000 men. James Longstreet's division numbered 9050 men on June 25 according to army ordnance chief Edward P. Alexander. It had numbered close to 12,000 men prior to losses at Seven Pines. Benjamin Huger's division numbered approximately 8600 men. William Whiting had around 4000 men in his two brigades. John Magruder's three divisions numbered about 13,000 men.

Union Edit

McClellan's Army of the Potomac, with approximately 105,000 men, [2] was organized largely as it had been at Seven Pines. [14]

    , Brig. Gen. Edwin V. Sumner commanding: divisions of Brig. Gens. Israel B. Richardson and John Sedgwick. , Brig. Gen. Samuel P. Heintzelman commanding: divisions of Brig. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny. , Brig. Gen. Erasmus D. Keyes commanding: divisions of Brig. Gens. Darius N. Couch and John J. Peck. , Brig. Gen. Fitz John Porter commanding: divisions of Brig. Gens. George W. Morell, George Sykes, and George A. McCall. , Brig. Gen. William B. Franklin commanding: divisions of Brig. Gens. Henry W. Slocum and William F. "Baldy" Smith.
  • Reserve forces included the cavalry reserve under Brig. Gen. Philip St. George Cooke (Jeb Stuart's father-in-law) and the supply base at White House Landing under Brig. Gen. Silas Casey.

Confederate Edit

Lee's Army of Northern Virginia was larger than the one he inherited from Johnston, and, at about 92,000 men, [3] the largest Confederate army assembled during the war. [15]

    Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, having just arrived from his victories in the Valley campaign, commanded a force consisting of his own division (now commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles S. Winder) and those of Maj. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Brig. Gen.William H. C. Whiting, and Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill.
  • Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill's "Light Division" (which was so named because it traveled light and was able to maneuver and strike quickly) consisted of the brigades of Brig. Gens. Charles W. Field, Maxcy Gregg, Joseph R. Anderson, Lawrence O'Bryan Branch, James J. Archer, and William Dorsey Pender.
  • Maj. Gen. James Longstreet's division consisted of the brigades of Brig. Gens. James L. Kemper, Richard H. Anderson, George E. Pickett, Cadmus M. Wilcox, Roger A. Pryor, and Winfield Scott Featherston. Longstreet also had operational command over Hill's Light Division.
  • Maj. Gen. John B. Magruder commanded the divisions of Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws, Brig. Gen. David R. Jones, and Magruder's own division, commanded by Brig. Gen. Howell Cobb.
  • Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger's division consisted of the brigades of Brig. Gens. William Mahone, Ambrose R. Wright, Lewis A. Armistead, and Robert Ransom, Jr.
  • Maj. Gen. Theophilus H. Holmes' division consisted of the brigades of Brig. Gens. Junius Daniel, John G. Walker, Henry A. Wise, and the cavalry brigade of Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Oak Grove Edit

McClellan planned to advance to the west, along the axis of the Williamsburg Road, in the direction of Richmond. Between the two armies was a small, dense forest, 1,200 yards (1,100 m) wide, bisected by the headwaters of White Oak Swamp. Two divisions of the III Corps were selected for the assault, commanded by Brig. Gens. Joseph Hooker and Philip Kearny. Facing them was the division of Confederate Maj. Gen. Benjamin Huger. [16]

Soon after 8 a.m., June 25, the Union brigades of Brig. Gens. Daniel E. Sickles (the Excelsior Brigade), Cuvier Grover, both of Hooker's division, and John C. Robinson stepped off. Although Robinson and Grover made good progress on the left and in the center, Sickles's New Yorkers encountered difficulties moving through their abatis, then through the upper portions of the creek, and finally met stiff Confederate resistance, all of which threw the Federal line out of alignment. Huger took advantage of the confusion by launching a counterattack with the brigade of Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright against Grover's brigade. At a crucial moment in the battle, the 26th North Carolina of Brig. Gen. Robert Ransom's brigade, in their first combat engagement, delivered a perfectly synchronized volley of rifle fire against Sickles's brigade, breaking up its delayed attack and sending the 71st New York into a panicked retreat, which Sickles described as "disgraceful confusion." [17]

Heintzelman ordered reinforcements sent forward and also notified army commander McClellan, who was attempting to manage the battle by telegraph from 3 miles (4.8 km) away. McClellan ordered his men to withdraw back to their entrenchments, mystifying his subordinates on the scene. Arriving at the front at 1 p.m., seeing that the situation was not as bad as he had feared, McClellan ordered his men forward to retake the ground for which they had already fought once that day. The fighting lasted until nightfall. [18]

The minor battle was McClellan's only tactical offensive action against Richmond. His attack gained only 600 yards (550 m) at a cost of over 1,000 casualties on both sides and was not strong enough to derail the offensive planned by Robert E. Lee, which had already been set in motion. [19]

Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville) Edit

Lee's plan called for Jackson to begin the attack on Porter's north flank early on June 26. A.P. Hill's Light Division was to advance from Meadow Bridge when he heard Jackson's guns, clear the Union pickets from Mechanicsville, and then move to Beaver Dam Creek. D.H. Hill and Longstreet were to pass through Mechanicsville and support Jackson and A.P. Hill. South of the river, Magruder and Huger were to demonstrate to deceive the four Union corps on their front. [20]

Lee's intricate plan went awry immediately. Jackson's men, fatigued from their recent campaign and lengthy march, ran at least four hours behind schedule. By 3 p.m., A.P. Hill grew impatient and began his attack without orders, a frontal assault with 11,000 men. Porter extended and strengthened his right flank and fell back to concentrate along Beaver Dam Creek and Ellerson's Mill. There, 14,000 well entrenched soldiers, aided by 32 guns in six batteries, repulsed repeated Confederate attacks with substantial casualties. [21]

Col. Vincent J. Esposito, The West Point Atlas of American Wars [22]

Jackson and his command arrived late in the afternoon and he ordered his troops to bivouac for the evening while a major battle was raging within earshot. His proximity to Porter's flank caused McClellan to order Porter to withdraw after dark behind Boatswain's Swamp, 5 miles (8.0 km) to the east. McClellan was concerned that the Confederate buildup on his right flank threatened his supply line, the Richmond and York River Railroad north of the Chickahominy, and he decided to shift his base of supply to the James River. He also believed that the diversions by Huger and Magruder south of the river meant that he was seriously outnumbered. (He reported to Washington that he faced 200,000 Confederates, but there were actually 85,000.) [23] This was a strategic decision of grave importance because it meant that, without the railroad to supply his army, he would be forced to abandon his siege of Richmond. A.P. Hill, now with Longstreet and D.H. Hill behind him, continued his attack, despite orders from Lee to hold his ground. His assault was beaten back with heavy casualties. [24]

Overall, the battle was a Union tactical victory, in which the Confederates suffered heavy casualties and achieved none of their specific objectives due to the seriously flawed execution of Lee's plan. Instead of over 60,000 men crushing the enemy's flank, only five brigades, about 15,000 men, had seen action. Their losses were 1,484 versus Porter's 361. Despite the short-term Union success, however, it was the start of a strategic debacle. McClellan began to withdraw his army to the southeast and never regained the initiative. [25]

Gaines's Mill Edit

By the morning of June 27, the Union forces were concentrated into a semicircle with Porter collapsing his line into an east–west salient north of the river and the four corps south of the river remaining in their original positions. McClellan ordered Porter to hold Gaines's Mill at all costs so that the army could change its base of supply to the James River. Several of McClellan's subordinates urged him to attack Magruder's division south of the river, but he feared the vast numbers of Confederates he believed to be before him and refused to capitalize on the overwhelming superiority he actually held on that front. [26]

Lee continued his offensive on June 27, launching the largest Confederate attack of the war, about 57,000 men in six divisions. [27] A.P. Hill resumed his attack across Beaver Dam Creek early in the morning, but found the line lightly defended. By early afternoon, he ran into strong opposition where Porter had deployed along Boatswain's Creek the swampy terrain was a major obstacle to the attack. As Longstreet arrived to the south of A.P. Hill, he saw the difficulty of attacking over such terrain and delayed until Stonewall Jackson could attack on Hill's left. [28]

For the second time in the Seven Days, however, Jackson was late. D.H. Hill attacked the Federal right and was held off by the division of Brig. Gen. George Sykes he backed off to await Jackson's arrival. Longstreet was ordered to conduct a diversionary attack to stabilize the lines until Jackson could arrive and attack from the north. In Longstreet's attack, Brig. Gen. George E. Pickett's brigade attempted a frontal assault and was beaten back under severe fire with heavy losses. Jackson finally reached D.H. Hill's position at 3 p.m. and began his assault at 4:30 p.m. [29]

Porter's line was saved by Brig. Gen. Henry W. Slocum's division moving into position to bolster his defense. Shortly after dark, the Confederates mounted another attack, poorly coordinated, but this time collapsing the Federal line. Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood's Texas Brigade opened a gap in the line, as did Pickett's Brigade on its second attempt of the day. By 4 a.m. on June 28, Porter withdrew across the Chickahominy, burning the bridges behind him. [30]

For the second day, Magruder was able to continue fooling McClellan south of the river by employing minor diversionary attacks. He was able to occupy 60,000 Federal troops while the heavier action occurred north of the river. [31]

Gaines's Mill was the only clear-cut Confederate tactical victory of the Peninsula Campaign. [32] Union casualties from the 34,214 engaged were 6,837 (894 killed, 3,107 wounded, and 2,836 captured or missing). Of the 57,018 Confederates engaged, losses totaled 7,993 (1,483 killed, 6,402 wounded, 108 missing or captured). [33] Since the Confederate assault was conducted against only a small portion of the Union Army (the V Corps, one fifth of the army), the army emerged from the battle in relatively good shape overall. However, although McClellan had already planned to shift his supply base to the James River, his defeat unnerved him and he precipitously decided to abandon his advance on Richmond. [34]

Union withdrawal Edit

The night of June 27, McClellan ordered his entire army to withdraw to a secure base at Harrison's Landing on the James River. His actions have puzzled military historians ever since. The Union army was in a good position, having withstood strong Confederate attacks while only deploying one of its five corps in battle. Porter had performed well against heavy odds. Furthermore, McClellan was aware that the War Department had created a new Army of Virginia and ordered it to be sent to the Peninsula to reinforce him. But Lee had unnerved him, and he surrendered the initiative. He sent a telegram to the Secretary of War that included the statement: "If I save this Army now I tell you plainly that I owe no thanks to you or any other persons in Washington—you have done your best to sacrifice this Army." (The military telegraph department chose to omit this sentence from the copy given to the Secretary.) [35]

McClellan ordered Keyes's IV Corps to move west of Glendale and protect the army's withdrawal, while Porter was sent to the high ground at Malvern Hill to develop defensive positions. The supply trains were ordered to move south toward the river. McClellan departed for Harrison's Landing without specifying any exact routes of withdrawal and without designating a second-in-command. For the remainder of the Seven Days, he had no direct command of the battles. The Union retreat across the Chickahominy after Gaines's Mill was a psychological victory for the Confederacy, signaling that Richmond was out of danger. [36]

Lee's cavalry reported that Union troops had abandoned their defense of the Richmond and York River Railroad and the White House supply depot on the York River. That information, plus the sighting of large dust clouds south of the Chickahominy River, finally convinced Lee that McClellan was heading for the James. Until this time, Lee anticipated that McClellan would be withdrawing to the east to protect his supply line to the York River and positioned his forces to react to that, unable to act decisively while he awaited evidence of McClellan's intentions. [37]

Garnett's & Golding's Farm Edit

While Lee's main attack at Gaines's Mill was progressing on June 27, the Confederates south of the Chickahominy performed a reconnaissance in force to determine the location of McClellan's retreating army. Magruder ordered Brig. Gen. Robert A. Toombs's brigade forward to "feel the enemy." Toombs, a Georgia politician with a disdain for professional officers, instead launched a sharp attack at dusk against Baldy Smith's VI Corps division near Old Tavern at the farm of James M. Garnett. The attack was easily repulsed by the brigade of Brig. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock. [38]

On June 28, Toombs again was ordered to conduct a reconnaissance, but turned it into an attack over the same ground, meeting the enemy at the farm of Simon Gouldin (also known as Golding). Toombs took it upon himself to order his fellow brigade commander, Col. George T. Anderson, to join the assault. Two of Anderson's regiments, the 7th and 8th Georgia, preceded Toombs's brigade into the assault and were subjected to a vigorous Federal counterattack by the 49th Pennsylvania and 43rd New York, losing 156 men. [39]

These were the only attacks south of the Chickahominy River in conjunction with Gaines's Mill, but they helped to convince McClellan that he was being subjected to attacks from all directions, increasing his anxiety and his determination to get his army to safety at the James. [40]

Savage's Station Edit

On Sunday, June 29, the bulk of McClellan's army concentrated around Savage's Station on the Richmond and York River Railroad, a Federal supply depot since just before Seven Pines, preparing for a difficult crossing through and around White Oak Swamp. It did so without centralized direction because McClellan had personally moved south of Malvern Hill after Gaines's Mill without leaving directions for corps movements during the retreat nor naming a second in command. Clouds of black smoke filled the air as the Union troops were ordered to burn anything they could not carry. Union morale plummeted, particularly so for those wounded, who realized that they were not being evacuated from Savage's Station with the rest of the Army. [41]

Lee devised a complex plan to pursue and destroy McClellan's army. Longstreet's and A.P. Hill's divisions looped back toward Richmond and then southeast to the crossroads at Glendale, Holmes's division headed farther south, to the vicinity of Malvern Hill, and Magruder's division was ordered to move due east to attack the Federal rear guard. Stonewall Jackson, commanding three divisions, was to rebuild a bridge over the Chickahominy and head due south to Savage's Station, where he would link up with Magruder and deliver a strong blow that might cause the Union Army to turn around and fight during its retreat. [42] McClellan's rear guard at Savage's Station consisted five divisions from Sumner's II Corps, Heintzelman's III Corps, and Franklin's VI Corps. McClellan considered his senior corps commander, Sumner, to be incompetent, so he appointed no one to command the rear guard. [43]

Initial contact between the armies occurred at 9 a.m. on June 29, a four-regiment fight about 2 miles (3.2 km) west of Savage's Station, lasting for about two hours before disengaging. [44] Meanwhile, Jackson was not advancing as Lee had planned. He was taking time to rebuild bridges over the Chickahominy and he received a garbled order from Lee's chief of staff that made him believe he should stay north of the river and guard the crossings. These failures of the Confederate plan were being matched on the Union side, however. Heintzelman decided on his own that his corps was not needed to defend Savage's Station, so he decided to follow the rest of the army without informing his fellow generals. [45]

Magruder was faced with the problem of attacking Sumner's 26,600 men with his own 14,000. He hesitated until 5 p.m., when he sent only two and a half brigades forward. Union artillery opened fire and pickets were sent forward to meet the assault. [46] The two brigade front of Kershaw and Semmes began to push the narrow defensive line of one of Sedgwick's brigades. Sumner managed this part of the battle erratically, selecting regiments for combat from multiple brigades almost at random. By the time all of these units reached the front, the two sides were at rough parity—two brigades each. Although Magruder had been conservative about his attack, Sumner was even more so. Of the 26 regiments he had in his corps, only 10 were engaged at Savage's Station. [47]

The fighting turned into a bloody stalemate as darkness fell and strong thunderstorms began to move in. The "Land Merrimack"—the first instance of an armored railroad battery to be used in combat—bombarded the Union front, with some of its shells reaching as far to the rear as the field hospital. The final action of the evening was as the Vermont Brigade, attempting to hold the flank south of the Williamsburg Road, charged into the woods and were met with murderous fire, suffering more casualties of any brigade on the field that day. [48]

There were about 1,500 casualties on both sides, plus 2,500 previously wounded Union soldiers who were left to be captured when their field hospital was evacuated. Stonewall Jackson eventually crossed the river by about 2:30 a.m. on June 30, but it was too late to crush the Union Army, as Lee had hoped. General Lee reprimanded Magruder, but the fault for the lost opportunity must be shared equally with the poor staff work at Lee's own headquarters and a less than aggressive performance by Jackson. [49]

Glendale and White Oak Swamp Edit

Most elements of the Union Army had been able to cross White Oak Swamp Creek by noon on June 30. About one third of the army had reached the James River, but the remainder was still marching between White Oak Swamp and Glendale. After inspecting the line of march that morning, McClellan rode south and boarded the ironclad USS Galena on the James. [50]

Lee ordered his army to converge on the retreating Union forces, bottlenecked on the inadequate road network. The Army of the Potomac, lacking overall command coherence, presented a discontinuous, ragged defensive line. Stonewall Jackson was ordered to press the Union rear guard at the White Oak Swamp crossing while the largest part of Lee's army, some 45,000 men, would attack the Army of the Potomac in mid-retreat at Glendale, about 2 miles (3.2 km) southwest, splitting it in two. Huger's division would strike first after a three-mile (5 km) march on the Charles City Road, supported by Longstreet and A.P. Hill, whose divisions were about 7 miles (11 km) to the west, in a mass attack. Holmes was ordered to capture Malvern Hill. [51]

The Confederate plan was once again marred by poor execution. Huger's men were slowed by felled trees obstructing the Charles City Road, spending hours chopping a new road through the thick woods. Huger failed to take any alternative route, and, fearing a counterattack, failed to participate in the battle. Magruder marched around aimlessly, unable to decide whether he should be aiding Longstreet or Holmes by 4 p.m., Lee ordered Magruder to join Holmes on the River Road and attack Malvern Hill. Stonewall Jackson moved slowly and spent the entire day north of the creek, making only feeble efforts to cross and attack Franklin's VI Corps in the Battle of White Oak Swamp, attempting to rebuild a destroyed bridge (although adequate fords were nearby), and engaging in a pointless artillery duel. Jackson's inaction allowed some units to be detached from Franklin's corps in late afternoon to reinforce the Union troops at Glendale. Holmes's relatively inexperienced troops made no progress against Porter at Turkey Bridge on Malvern Hill, even with the reinforcements from Magruder, and were repulsed by effective artillery fire and by Federal gunboats on the James. [52]

At 2 p.m., as they waited for sounds of Huger's expected attack, Lee, Longstreet, and visiting Confederate President Jefferson Davis were conferring on horseback when they came under heavy artillery fire, wounding two men and killing three horses. A.P. Hill, the commander in that sector, ordered the president and senior generals to the rear. Longstreet attempted to silence the six batteries of Federal guns firing in his direction, but long-range artillery fire proved to be inadequate. He ordered Col. Micah Jenkins to charge the batteries, which brought on a general fight around 4 p.m. [53]

Although belated and not initiated as planned, the assaults by the divisions of A.P. Hill and Longstreet, under Longstreet's overall command, turned out to be the only ones to follow Lee's order to attack the main Union concentration. Longstreet's 20,000 men were not reinforced by other Confederate divisions of Huger and Jackson, despite their concentration within a three-mile (5 km) radius. They assaulted the disjointed Union line of 40,000 men, arranged in a two-mile (3 km) arc north and south of the Glendale intersection, but the brunt of the fighting was centered on the position held by the Pennsylvania Reserves division of the V Corps, 6,000 men under Brig. Gen. George A. McCall, just west of the Nelson Farm. (The farm was owned by R.H. Nelson, but its former owner was named Frayser and many of the locals referred to it as Frayser's, or Frazier's, Farm.) [54]

Three Confederate brigades made the assault, but Longstreet ordered them forward in a piecemeal fashion, [55] over several hours. Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper's Virginians charged through the thick woods first and emerged in front of five batteries of McCall's artillery. In their first combat experience, the brigade conducted a disorderly but enthusiastic assault, which carried them through the guns and broke through McCall's main line with Jenkins's support, followed up a few hours later by Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox's Alabamians. The Confederate brigades met stiff resistance in sometimes hand-to-hand combat. [56]

On McCall's flanks, the divisions of Brig. Gen. Joseph Hooker (to the south) and Brig. Gens. Philip Kearny and Henry W. Slocum (to the north), held against repeated Confederate attacks. Brig. Gen. John Sedgwick's division, which had units both in reserve and around White Oak Swamp, came up to fill a gap after a brutal counterattack. Heavy fighting continued until about 8:30 p.m. Longstreet committed virtually every brigade in the divisions under his command, while on the Union side they had been fed in individually to plug holes in the line as they occurred. [57]

The battle was tactically inconclusive, although Lee failed to achieve his objective of preventing the Federal escape and crippling McClellan's army, if not destroying it. Union casualties were 3,797, Confederate about the same at 3,673, but more than 40% higher in killed and wounded. Although Jackson's wing of the army and Franklin's corps comprised tens of thousands of men, the action at White Oak Swamp included no infantry activity and was limited to primarily an artillery duel with few casualties. [58]

Malvern Hill Edit

The final battle of the Seven Days was the first in which the Union Army occupied favorable ground. Malvern Hill offered good observation and artillery positions, having been prepared the previous day by Porter's V Corps. McClellan himself was not present on the battlefield, having preceded his army to Harrison's Landing on the James, and Porter was the most senior of the corps commanders. The slopes were cleared of timber, providing great visibility, and the open fields to the north could be swept by deadly fire from the 250 guns [59] placed by Col. Henry J. Hunt, McClellan's chief of artillery. Beyond this space, the terrain was swampy and thickly wooded. Almost the entire Army of the Potomac occupied the hill and the line extended in a vast semicircle from Harrison's Landing on the extreme right to Brig. Gen. George W. Morell's division of Porter's corps on the extreme left, which occupied the geographically advantageous ground on the northwestern slopes of the hill. [60]

Rather than flanking the position, Lee attacked it directly, hoping that his artillery would clear the way for a successful infantry assault. His plan was to attack the hill from the north on the Quaker Road, using the divisions of Stonewall Jackson, Richard S. Ewell, D.H. Hill, and Brig. Gen. William H.C. Whiting. Magruder was ordered to follow Jackson and deploy to his right when he reached the battlefield. Huger's division was to follow as well, but Lee reserved the right to position him based on developments. The divisions of Longstreet and A.P. Hill, which had been the most heavily engaged in Glendale the previous day, were held in reserve. [61]

Once again, Lee's complex plan was poorly executed. The approaching soldiers were delayed by severely muddy roads and poor maps. Jackson arrived at the swampy creek called Western Run and stopped abruptly. Magruder's guides mistakenly sent him on the Long Bridge Road to the southwest, away from the battlefield. Eventually the battle line was assembled with Huger's division (brigades of Brig. Gens. Ambrose R. Wright and Lewis A. Armistead) on the Confederate right and D.H. Hill's division (brigades of Brig. Gen. John Bell Hood and Col. Evander M. Law) on the Quaker Road to the left. They awaited the Confederate bombardment before attacking. [62]

Unfortunately for Lee, Henry Hunt struck first, launching one of the greatest artillery barrages in the war from 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. The Union gunners had superior equipment and expertise and disabled most of the Confederate batteries. Despite the setback, Lee sent his infantry forward at 3:30 p.m. and Armistead's brigade made some progress through lines of Union sharpshooters. By 4 p.m., Magruder arrived and he was ordered forward to support Armistead. His attack was piecemeal and poorly organized. Meanwhile, D. H. Hill launched his division forward along the Quaker Road, past Willis Church. Across the entire line of battle, the Confederate troops reached only within 200 yards (180 m) of the Union Center and were repulsed by nightfall with heavy losses. [63] Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill is quoted as saying that, "It wasn't war, it was murder."

Lee's army suffered 5,355 casualties (versus 3,214 Union) in this wasted effort, but continued to follow the Union army all the way to Harrison's Landing. On Evelington Heights, part of the property of Edmund Ruffin, the Confederates had an opportunity to dominate the Union camps, making their position on the bank of the James potentially untenable although the Confederate position would be subjected to Union naval gunfire, the heights were an exceptionally strong defensive position that would have been very difficult for the Union to capture with infantry. Cavalry commander Jeb Stuart reached the heights and began bombardment with a single cannon. This alerted the Federals to the potential danger and they captured the heights before any Confederate infantry could reach the scene. [64]

Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, letter to his wife [65]

The Seven Days Battles ended the Peninsula Campaign. Malvern Hill was not a tenable position to stay in, and the Army of the Potomac quickly withdrew to Harrison's Landing, where it was protected by Union gunboats on the James River. The army was in no condition for a renewed offensive close to 16,000 men and officers had been killed or wounded between June 25 and July 1, particularly in the V Corps, which had done the heaviest fighting, while the survivors were extremely tired after a week of fighting and marching with little food or sleep, most of the artillery ammunition had been used up, and the summer weather was taking its toll with the army sick lists getting longer and longer. Meanwhile, the equally-exhausted Army of Northern Virginia, with no reason to remain in the James bottomlands, pulled back to the Richmond lines to lick its wounds.

McClellan wrote a series of letters to the War Department arguing that he was facing upwards of 200,000 Confederates and that he needed major reinforcements to launch a renewed offensive on Richmond. By giving him the commands in Northern Virginia, troops from the Washington garrison, and whatever forces could be pulled from the West, he argued that he might have a fighting chance. General-in-chief Henry Halleck replied back that McClellan's requests were impossible and that if the Confederate army were really as large as he claimed, then trying to reinforce him with Pope and Burnside's commands in Northern Virginia was suicide, since the Confederates could easily crush either Union army with overwhelming strength. Halleck also pointed out that mosquito season was coming up in August–September, and to remain on the swampy Virginia Peninsula at that time of the year was inviting a disastrous malaria and yellow fever epidemic. On August 4, the order came down for McClellan to withdraw from the Peninsula and return to the Aquia Creek area at once. [66]

Both sides suffered heavy casualties. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia suffered about 20,000 casualties (3,494 killed, 15,758 wounded, and 952 captured or missing) out of a total of over 90,000 soldiers during the Seven Days. McClellan reported casualties of about 16,000 (1,734 killed, 8,062 wounded, and 6,053 captured or missing) out of a total of 105,445. Despite their victory, many Confederates were stunned by the losses. [67] The number of casualties in the Seven Days Battles surpassed the total number of casualties in the Western Theater of the war up until that point in the year. [68]

The effects of the Seven Days Battles were widespread. After a successful start on the Peninsula that foretold an early end to the war, Northern morale was crushed by McClellan's retreat. Despite heavy casualties which the less populated South could ill afford and clumsy tactical performances by Lee and his generals, Confederate morale skyrocketed, and Lee was emboldened to continue his aggressive strategy through the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Maryland Campaign. McClellan's previous position as general-in-chief of all the Union armies, vacant since March, was filled on July 23, 1862, by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck, although McClellan did retain command of the Army of the Potomac. Meanwhile, Robert E. Lee embarked on a thorough reorganization of the Army of Northern Virginia, forming it into two corps commanded by James Longstreet and Stonewall Jackson. Lee also removed several generals such as John Magruder and Benjamin Huger who had performed poorly during the Seven Days Battles. [69]


How did the James river serve as a natural defense during The US Civil War? - History

Exchange of Prisoners in the Civil War

The exchange of prisoners between belligerents is made in accordance with agreements, entered into for that purpose, called cartels. The making of such agreements is purely voluntary, and cannot be constrained by subjecting prisoners to special hardships. . . . The binding force of cartels, like that of all other agreements between belligerents, rests upon the good faith of the contracting parties. If the terms of a cartel are violated by one belligerent they cease to be obligatory upon the other.-George B. Dams, in "Outlines of International Law."

Though prisoners taken in Texas, Missouri, Virginia, and elsewhere had been paroled early in the war, their exchange was not completed until much later. The first instance of formal exchange, apparently, is that in Missouri, when four officers of General G. J. Pillow's command met four of the command of Colonel W. H. L. Wallace, and exchanged six privates, three on each side.
The Federal Government was anxious to avoid in any way a recognition of the Confederate Government, and therefore whatever exchanges followed these for several months were made by the commanding officers on both sides, unofficially, though with the knowledge and tacit consent of the Government at Washington. The first person who officially realized the fact that the whole question of prisoners and prisons was likely to be important was Quartermaster-General M. C. Meigs, U. S. A., who, on July 12, 1861, nine days before the first battle of Bull Run, wrote Secretary of War Cameron advising the appointment of a commissary-general of prisoners.
In the West, Generals Halleck and Grant turned over a number of prisoners to Generals Polk and Jeff. Thompson and received their own men in return. In the East, General Benjamin Huger, the Confederate commander at Norfolk, and General John E. Wool, U. S. A., made a number of special exchanges. As the number of prisoners grew, much of the time of the commanding officers was required for this business. A large amount of political pressure was brought to bear upon the officials at Washington, urging them to arrange for an exchange, and on December 3, 1861, General Halleck wrote that the prisoners ought to be exchanged, as it was simply a convention, and the fact that they had been exchanged would not prevent their being tried for treason, if desired, after the war.
The Confederate officials, conscious of their deficient resources, were eager to escape the care of prisoners, and welcomed the announcement of General Wool, February 13, 1862, that he had been empowered to arrange a general exchange. General Wool met General Howell Cobb, on February 23d, and an agreement, except upon the point of delivery at the "frontier of their own country," was reached for the delivery of all prisoners, the excess to be on parole. At a subsequent meeting, General Wool announced that his instructions had been changed and that he could exchange man for man only. This offer was refused by General Cobb, who charged that the reason for the unwillingness to complete the agreement was the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, which gave the Federal Government an excess of prisoners which it was unwilling to release on parole.
As the next move on the chess-board, the Confederate Government refused longer to make individual exchanges on the ground that, as political pressure in many cases caused the Federal Government to ask for the exchange of certain individuals, those who had no influential friends would be left in prison. On a letter of General McClellan proposing an exchange, the Confederate Secretary of War, G. W. Randolph, endorsed June 14, 1862: "No arrangement of any sort has been made, and individual exchanges are declined. We will exchange generally or according to some principle, but not by arbitrary selections."
An interesting correspondence, marked by perfect courtesy on both sides, took place during the summer of 1862 between General Lee and General McClellan. On the 6th of June, a week after the battle of Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks, a general order that surgeons should be considered non-combatants and not sent to prison was issued from Washington, and was accepted by General Lee on the 17th. On the 9th of July, General Lee proposed to release General McClellan's wounded on parole, and the offer was accepted by General McClellan.
Finally, on the 12th of July, General John A. Dix was authorized by Secretary Stanton to negotiate for the exchange, but was cautioned in every possible way to avoid any recognition of the Confederate Government. The cartel in force between the United States and Great Britain during the War of 1812 was suggested as a basis. General Lee was informed of General Dix's appointment on July 13th, and the next day announced that he had appointed General D. H. Hill as commissioner on the part of the Confederacy. The commissioners met on the 17th of July and adjourned on the following day for further instructions from their Governments, and finally, July 22d, came to an agreement. The cartel, which is interesting in view of the subsequent disputes, is to be found in Appendix A.
All prisoners in the East were to be delivered at Aiken's Landing on the James River (soon changed to City Point), and in the West at Vicksburg, with the provision that the fortunes of war might render it necessary to change these places and substitute others bearing the same general relation to the contending armies. Each party agreed to appoint two agents, one in the East and one in the West, to carry out the stipulations of the contract. General Lorenzo Thomas was temporarily detached from his position as adjutant-general to act as agent in the East, while the Confederate Government appointed Colonel Robert Ould, Assistant Secretary of War, and previously United States attorney for the District of Columbia, who served in that capacity to the end of the war. Under the supervision of these men and with the aid of General John A. Dix, the prisoners in the East were exchanged. Prisoners in the West were sent to Vicksburg, where the first exchanges were conducted by Major N. G. Watts, C. S. A., and Captain H. M. Lazelle, U. S. A.
The Confederates maintained that they held, for the greater part of the time before the cartel was signed, several times as many prisoners as were held in the North. The excess was considerable until the capture of Forts Henry and Donelson, and the difficulty of feeding and guarding these prisoners was one of the reasons for their anxiety to arrange a plan of exchange. As early as June 17, 1862, the quartermaster-general of the Confederacy wrote that it was almost impossible to feed the prisoners at Lynchburg, and that he deemed it his duty to state that "the difficulty of maintaining prisoners is most serious, and that the growing deficiency in the resources of the Confederacy . . . will render the speedy exchange of prisoners of war or their disposition otherwise absolutely necessary."
After exchanges were well under way, General Thomas returned to Washington and a volunteer officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William H. Ludlow, was appointed agent for exchange. General E. A. Hitchcock was appointed commissioner for exchange, with headquarters in Washington.
Almost immediately there were difficulties in the application of the cartel. Nine days after it was signed. President Davis wrote to General Lee, on July 31st, saying, "Scarcely had that cartel been signed when the military authorities of the United States commenced to practise changing the character of the war from such as becomes civilized nations into a campaign of indiscriminate robbery and murder."
The cause of this strong language was the order issued by Secretary Stanton, on July 22d, which, as interpreted by President Davis, directed "the military authorities of the United States to take the private property of our people for the convenience and use of their armies without compensation." The general order issued by Major-General Pope, July 23d, the day after the signing of the cartel, was also mentioned. The first paragraph of this order reads as follows, "Commanders of army corps, divisions, brigades, and detached commands will proceed immediately to arrest all disloyal male citizens within their lines or within their reach in the rear of their respective stations." Those unwilling to take an oath of allegiance and furnish bond were to be sent to the Confederate lines.
Two days after the letter of President Davis, therefore, General Samuel Cooper, adjutant-general of the Confederacy, issued General Orders No. 54, on August 1, 1862. After referring to Secretary Stanton's order, and General Pope's order already mentioned, together with the action of General Steinwehr, who, it was asserted, had arrested private citizens in Virginia with the threat that they would be put to death if any of his soldiers were killed, the order declares that all these things taken together show a disposition "to violate all the rules and usages of war and to convert the hostilities waged against armed forces into a campaign of robbery and murder against unarmed citizens and peaceful tillers of the soil." It was therefore announced that General Pope and General Steinwehr, and all commissioned officers serving under them, "are hereby specially declared to be not entitled to be considered as soldiers, and therefore not entitled to the benefit of the cartel for the parole of future prisoners of war."
General Lee, apparently against his will, was instructed to convey copies of President Davis' letter and the general orders to General Halleck. These were returned by General Halleck as being couched in insulting language, and were never put into force, as General Pope's authority in Virginia soon ended. All the captured officers of General Pope's command were forwarded by Colonel Ould, September 24, 1862. Exchanges went on, and the prisons were practically empty for a time.
The paroled Union soldiers in the East were sent chiefly to Camp Parole, at Annapolis. Often the officers had been separated from their men and did not report to the camp. Many were unwilling to resume army life and refused to do police or guard duty around their camp, on the ground that such duty was forbidden by their parole.
In the West, many of the paroled prisoners were sent to Camp Chase, in Ohio. General Lew Wallace, who found three thousand paroled Union soldiers when he took command of the post, reported that "there had never been such a thing as enforcement of order amongst them never any guards mounted or duty of any kind performed. With but few exceptions officers abandoned the men and left them to shift for themselves. The consequences can be easily imagined. The soldiers became lousy and ragged, despairing and totally demoralized." Secretary Stanton, in an interesting telegraphic correspondence with Governor Tod, of Ohio, on September 9, 1862, stated he believed "there is reason to fear that many voluntarily surrender for the sake of getting home. I have sent fifteen hundred to Camp Chase and wish to have them kept in close quarters and drilled diligently every day, with no leave of absence." Governor Tod, the same day, suggested that these paroled prisoners awaiting a declaration of exchange, be sent to Minnesota to fight the Indians, and Secretary Stanton immediately approved the suggestion.
General Wallace says, however, that very few were willing to go. In order to bring some sort of order out of chaos, he determined to organize new regiments and refused to pay or to provide clothes for any man who had not enrolled himself in one of these companies. The paroled prisoners insisted that they were exempt from military duty. The first regiment organized deserted almost in a mass. The officer of the guard one morning found three muskets leaning against a tree, left there by sentinels who had deserted.
Since so few of the released Federal prisoners were willing to reenlist, while the majority of the Confederates by this time were in the ranks "for the whole war," it is perhaps natural that doubts of the wisdom of further exchange should become convictions in the minds of some of the Northern leaders. Meanwhile, General Benjamin F. Butler had begun his military government in New Orleans, and William B. Mumford, a citizen, had been hanged for pulling down the United States flag. The Confederacy charged that this was done before the city had been formally occupied by Federal troops. On December 23, 1862, President Davis issued a proclamation denouncing General Butler as "a felon deserving of capital punishment," and the commissioned officers serving under him "robbers and criminals," not entitled to be considered as soldiers engaged in honorable warfare and deserving of execution.
Negro troops also had been enrolled in the Union army, and President Lincoln had issued his preliminary proclamation of emancipation. In answer, President Davis decreed that all negro slaves captured in arms and their white officers should not be treated as prisoners of war but should be delivered to the States to be punished according to their laws. If carried out, these officers would be put to death on the charge of inciting negro insurrection.
Secretary Stanton, December 28, 1862, answered by suspending the exchange of commissioned officers, but the exchange of enlisted men went on as usual, though marked by much mutual recrimination between Colonel Ludlow and Colonel Ould. Special exchanges were sometimes effected, although Colonel Ould attempted to prevent all such. President Davis' proclamation was practically endorsed by the Confederate Congress, and on May 25, 1863, General Halleck ordered all exchanges stopped.
In spite of the suspension of the cartel, exchanges went on in the East by special agreements for more than a year longer. In the West, many thousands were exchanged by Colonel C. C. Dwight, on the part of the United States, and Lieutenant-Colonel N. G. Watts and Major Ignatius Szymanski, on the part of the Confederacy. Generals Sherman and Hood also exchanged some prisoners afterward taken by their respective commands, and other special agreements between commanders in the field were made.
Meanwhile, though the cartel of 1862 declared that all captures must be reduced to actual possession, and that all prisoners of war must be delivered at designated places for exchange or parole, unless by agreement of commanders of opposing armies, the custom of paroling prisoners at the point of capture had grown up by common consent. On the last day of the battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, Secretary Stanton issued General Orders No. 207, declaring that all such paroles were in violation of general orders, and therefore null and void declaring further that any soldier accepting such parole would be returned to duty and punished for disobedience of orders. Some provisions of General Orders No. 100 served upon Colonel Ould on May 23d also forbade parole without delivery. The reasons for the issuance of this order were probably to put an end to the accumulation of paroles by the irregular or guerilla Confederate forces in the West, which picked up prisoners here and there.
The capture of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, together with the battle of Gettysburg, threw the excess of prisoners very largely in favor of the Federals, and from this time on the number of Confederates in Northern prisons was larger than that of Federals in Southern prisons. It was next determined by the War Department to make no exchanges except for those actually held in confinement. This rendered useless, of course, a large number of paroles which Colonel Ould claimed to have, and if accepted would have released every Federal prisoner in the South, while leaving thousands of Confederates in confinement. With the practical cessation of exchanges came much complaint upon both sides. The hardships of Salisbury, Libby, and Belle Isle are, of course, better known by the North than those of Fort Delaware, Alton, and Camp Morton. But in Southern experiences and reminiscences, perhaps as many complaints of insufficient food and clothing and of cruel treatment can be found as on the other side up to the summer of 1863.
The Federal officials in control of the matter refused to complete the exchange of those whose paroles had been given, or to exchange the Vicksburg and Port Hudson prisoners. Colonel Ould, however, finally declared them exchanged, regardless of the approval of the Federal commissioner. The question as to whether the consent of both agents or commissioners was necessary to make a valid declaration of exchange, had been discussed before by Generals Buell and Bragg, on October 1, 1862, when General Buell declared that it was not. His version had been accepted in the West, though in the East a mutual declaration had been the rule.
The trouble arose from the lack of clearness in the supplementary articles of the cartel giving permission to "commanders of two opposing armies "for paroling or exchanging prisoners by mutual consent. Colonel Ould claimed that General Gardner, in command at Port Hudson, was a subordinate officer and therefore was not authorized to accept paroles. The Federal commissioner protested vigorously, and a lengthy correspondence ensued, in which Colonel Ould declared that mutual consent was not necessary and that Colonel Ludlow had made similar declarations. Colonel Ould furnished a schedule of captures, some of which were pronounced legitimate while the validity of others was denied. When his paroles were exhausted all further exchanges ceased for a time. Brigadier-General S. A. Meredith succeeded Colonel Ludlow as agent for exchange, and soon was involved in acrimonious controversy with Colonel Ould.
General Butler, who had been appointed to command at Fortress Monroe, was, at his own suggestion, created a special agent for exchange, and from that time onward made no reports to General Hitchcock, commissioner for exchange, but assumed the title and duties of commissioner. At first, the Confederate authorities refused to treat with General Butler, but finally Secretary Seddon, on April 28, 1864, wrote: "It may well excite surprise and indignation that the Government of the United States should select for any position of dignity and command a man so notoriously stigmatized by the common sentiment of enlightened nations. But it is not for us to deny their right to appreciate and select one whom they may not inappropriately, perhaps, deem a fitting type and representative of their power and characteristics." After this, Colonel Ould opened negotiations. Previously, General Butler had written many letters to Colonel Ould which the latter answered in detail but addressed his replies to Major Mulford, the assistant agent for exchange. With the natural shrewdness of an astute lawyer, General Butler saw that too many questions were involved for the public to gain a clear idea of the matters in question. Therefore, he was willing to grant to Colonel Ould what the previous commissioners for exchange had refused to do, setting forth in his confidential communication to Secretary Stanton that his great object was to get exchanges started again, and even to exchange a considerable number of prisoners.
The Union authorities held so much larger numbers that they could afford to do this and still retain a number large enough to guard against cruel treatment of negro troops. Butler wrote that it was his object, after exchanges had continued for some time, to bring the matter of negro troops sharply and clearly into view, and to make further exchanges depend absolutely upon the treatment of negro troops as prisoners of war. The voluminous correspondence between himself and Colonel Ould is interesting. Both were able lawyers, both had a fondness for disputation, and sometimes one is tempted to believe that to both of them the subject of discussion was not really so important as the discussion itself, and that overwhelming the adversary was more vital than securing the objects of the discussion. All of this was stopped by the positive order of General Grant, April 17, 1864, who, after consultation with Secretary Stanton, forbade any exchange until the questions of the Vicksburg and Port Hudson paroles and the matter of exchanges of negro troops were arranged. The Confederacy, despairing of forcing a complete exchange according to the cartel, yielded to the inevitable, and on August 10, Colonel Ould offered a man-for-man exchange so far as the Confederate prisoners would go.
On August 18th, however, General Grant wrote to General Butler, who was still corresponding with Colonel Ould, saying: "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught, they amount to no more than dead men. At this particular time to release all rebel prisoners in the North would insure Sherman's defeat and would compromise our safety here."
The next day a letter to Secretary Seward closes with the following sentence, "We have got to fight until the military power of the South is exhausted, and if we release or exchange prisoners captured, it simply becomes a war of extermination." To this determination General Grant held fast against pressure to which a weaker man would have yielded. Conditions in Andersonville and other Southern prisons were, by this time, well known. The Confederate authorities, finding it more and more difficult to secure provisions for prisoners and army, allowed five non-commissioned officers to go through the lines bearing a petition from the prisoners at Andersonville, setting forth the conditions there and asking for exchange but to no purpose. Nor was the protest of the commissioned officers more successful, for the broad reasons given by General Grant as shown in the quotation above.
The relatives and friends of prisoners besieged the War Department, the governors of their States, members of Congress, and all who were supposed to have any influence with the officers of the Government, pleading, imploring, demanding that some method of releasing prisoners be adopted. The same determination which led Grant to hammer steadily in the Wilderness campaign, enabled him to hold the War Department in harmony with his policy. Since the Confederate armies could be beaten only by exhausting them, therefore every means by which those armies were prevented from being increased was justified from his standpoint.
He felt that to give Lee forty thousand additional men might prolong the war indefinitely, for nearly every Confederate prisoner released went back to the ranks, while a large proportion of the prisoners at Andersonville belonged to regiments whose time was expired and in many cases had been mustered out of service. Therefore, had their physical condition permitted it, few would have returned to the ranks, or could have been utilized for further service. It was, of course, greatly to the advantage of the Confederacy to exchange, as their resources were dwindling alarmingly.
General Lee, on October 1, 1864, again proposed an exchange to General Grant. It was met by the question whether negro soldiers who had been slaves would be exchanged. General Lee, acting under instructions, wrote that negroes belonging to citizens were not considered subjects of exchange, and General Grant declined any further discussion.
When it seemed that re was not probable, several Southerners advised that prisoners in South Carolina and Georgia, or a part of them, be released on parole, even without equivalents. It was suggested that all opposed to the administration be sent home in time to vote, and also that all whose time had expired be released. The Confederacy would thus be relieved of the burden of their support. Secretary Seddon evidently considered the matter seriously, for he writes, "It presents a great embarrassment, but I see no remedy which is not worse than the evil," and did not issue the order.
This endorsement was made upon a letter from a citizen of South Carolina, dated September 21, 1864, and forwarded to Secretary Seddon with the tacit approval at least, of Governor Bonham. Previously, on September 9th, Alexander H. Stephens had suggested the release of the Andersonville prisoners, to General Howell Cobb, who was responsible for the suggestion already mentioned that those opposed to the administration be sent home.
The burden upon the South became overwhelming. Colonel Ould offered to deliver the sick and wounded at Savannah, without equivalent. Transportation was sent late in November, and there and at Charleston, where the delivery was completed after the railroad leading to Savannah was cut, about thirteen thousand men were released. More than three thousand Confederates were delivered at the same time. Another proposition for exchange was made on January 24, 1865, and as it was then certain that the action could have little influence on the final result, exchanges were begun and continued with little interruption to the end, though much confusion was caused by the refusal of subordinates who had not been informed of the arrangements to receive the prisoners. In February, for example, General Schofield's orders from General Grant were delayed, and for several days he declined to receive, much to the dismay of the Confederate commander, a large number of prisoners ordered to Wilmington from Salisbury and F1orence.

Source: "The Photographic History of The Civil War", Volume 4, Soldier Life and Secret Service, Prisons and Hospitals. Article by Holland Thompson

Note: The original title of this article was "Exchange of Prisoners". The words "In The Civil War" were added to accommodate the Internet search engines.


Prisoner Exchange and Parole

The release of prisoners of war on parole actually predated the opening shots of the American Civil War. On February 18, 1861, after Texas seceded, Major General David Emanuel Twiggs surrendered all Union forces in the state to the Confederates. The officers and men were soon on their way north, carrying with them paroles stating that they would not serve in the field until formally exchanged. On April 14, 1861, the opening shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter. The entire Union garrison was not only paroled to their homes, but the Confederates also provided them with transportation.

As contending forces headed into the field in the summer of 1861, commanders began negotiating individual exchange agreements. One of the first took place in Missouri, and it illustrated many of the concerns that would plague the exchange process in the future. Confederate Brigadier General Gideon Johnson Pillow made the first move. On August 28 he sent a message to Colonel William Hervey Lamme“W. H. L.” Wallace offering to exchange prisoners. Wallace replied by pointing out that the "contending parties" had not agreed to a general exchange and by emphasizing that any exchange to which he agreed would not be interpreted as a precedent. [1]

When Pillow, believing Wallace held a greater number of prisoners, proposed that Federals held in Richmond be included, Wallace declined. He also balked at Pillow’s suggestion to include civilian prisoners in the agreement. Wallace’s superior, Major General John Charles Frémont, added a stipulation that only regular soldiers would be accepted, no home guards. By the time all the restrictions had been put in place, each side received only three prisoners.

Brigadier General Ulysses S. (Hiram Ulysses) Grant was equally cautious when, on October 14, Major General Leonidas Polk proposed an exchange of prisoners. "I recognize no Southern Confederacy myself," Grant was quick to point out. Instead of negotiating any type of agreement, Grant simply returned three Confederates through the lines. The officer who conducted the captives to a flag-of-truce steamer received strict orders to avoid any formal discussions with Confederate officials. Polk responded by returning sixteen captured Union soldiers. The two continued the process for several weeks. Eventually the generals met face-to-face to expedite the exchange of 238 wounded captives. Grant was careful, however, to limit the scope of the talks to his corner of the war. [2]

Similar limited exchanges also took place in the Eastern Theater between individual commanders. The greatest number was arranged by Major General Benjamin Huger, commanding the Confederate Department of Norfolk, and Union Major General John Ellis Wool, who commanded Fortress Monroe. The two generals also arranged for clothing to be shipped to prisoners on both sides. However, like his Western counterparts, Wool never allowed the scope of the discussions to expand to the issue of a general exchange.

Wool’s caution reflected the policy of the Lincoln Administration, which was fearful of adopting any position which would in any way imply recognition of the Confederate government. Philosophically, Lincoln’s views were consistent. His reading of the Constitution led him to believe that the Union was "perpetual." As for secession, as he explained in his inaugural address, "Resolves and ordinances to the effect are legally void." [3]

The war soon raised questions more practical than philosophical. Lincoln learned this when his administration adopted a policy of treating captured Southern privateers as pirates rather than belligerents. In early November the crew of the Confederate brig Jeff Davis was convicted of piracy and sentenced to death in a Philadelphia courtroom. The Confederate president immediately came to the defense of those serving aboard his namesake vessel. Davis sent word through the lines that an equal number of Union prisoners had been selected for like execution in the event that the sentence was carried out. Putting philosophy aside, Lincoln backed down from what threatened to be a senseless blood bath.

Still, the Union president remained opposed to a general exchange agreement. He was, however, an adroit politician, sensitive to the rumblings of public opinion. As 1861 drew to a close, and reports of poor conditions in Confederate prisons reached the North, those rumblings became louder and more numerous. On December 11 a joint congressional resolution called on the administration to "inaugurate systematic measures for the exchange of prisoners in the present rebellion." [4]

Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin McMasters Stanton attempted to deflect the issue by attempting in January 1862 to send food, clothing, and other supplies through the lines. Methodist Bishop Edward Raymond Ames and New York Congressman Hamilton Fish agreed to run the operation. Wool received orders to secure passes for the emissaries. The Confederates, seeing a potential opportunity in the mission, sent two negotiators to Fortress Monroe to meet with Ames and Fish and attempt to secure an exchange cartel. The two men realized the Southern proposal went well beyond their instructions from Washington. They sought advice from Stanton, who instructed them to return home.

The president and his secretary of war nevertheless realized that they could not hold out much longer in the face of the public outcry for exchange. The same day that he recalled Ames and Fish, Stanton gave Wool authority to negotiate an agreement with Confederate Brigadier General Thomas Reade Rootes Cobb. The two could not agree on language, and the negotiations failed.

On June 23 the Senate adopted another resolution on exchange, and the New York Times, a paper usually friendly to Lincoln, editorialized, "Our government must change its policy, our prisoners must be exchanged!" On July 12 the administration decided to try again to reach an agreement. Stanton gave the assignment to Major General John Adams Dix, Wool’s successor at Fort Monroe. Confederate General Robert Edward Lee sent Major General Daniel Harvey Hill as the Confederate negotiator. This time things went smoothly. Following a series of meetings at Haxall’s Landing on the James River, the two generals reached an agreement on July 22. [5]

Patterned upon a similar arrangement used by the Americans and the British during the War of 1812, the Dix-Hill Cartel established a sliding scale to calculate the relative values of officers and enlisted personnel. Excess prisoners would be paroled and not permitted to take up arms until properly exchanged. The agreement called upon each side to appoint an agent of exchange to oversee the process. Finally, the terms stipulated that disputes were to be "made the subject of friendly expressions in order that the object of this agreement may neither be defeated or postponed." [6]

Four days after the cartel was signed, some 800 wounded Union captives left Richmond to begin the return journey north. Smaller numbers left over the next several days. On August 3 three thousand enlisted men bid goodbye to the Belle Isle Prison. Similar numbers departed from Richmond during the next two months. Meanwhile, prisons at Salisbury, North Carolina Columbia, South Carolina Macon, Georgia and other points in the Confederacy also began to empty.

In the North, Colonel William Hoffman, the Union commissary general of prisoners, traveled from camp to camp to oversee the departure of Confederate captives. He started in the West, where the vast majority of Southern prisoners were held. Beginning August 22, he gave detailed instructions to commanders at Camp Morton, Camp Chase, Johnson’s Island, Camp Douglas, Camp Butler, and Alton, Illinois. The prisoners were sent away in detachments of about one thousand, each guarded by a company of Union soldiers. Most traveled by rail to Cairo, Illinois, then took Mississippi River boats to Vicksburg, the Western point of exchange. Captives destined for the Eastern Theater headed for Aiken’s Landing on the James River.

The Union prisons emptied dramatically. In July of 1862 there were 1,726 captives at Camp Chase. By the following March the number was down to 534. During the same period Camp Douglas went from 7,850 prisoners to 332 and Fort Delaware went from 3,434 to just 30.

Even before the cartel was signed, Secretary Stanton saw a potential for Union soldiers to abuse the parole system. The Confederates had begun paroling a number of Western prisoners unilaterally, including some two thousand taken at the April 1862 battle of Shiloh. They had also initiated a policy of paroling prisoners in the field. It did not take long for Billy Yank to realize that capture no longer meant months of confinement in a dreary Southern prison. Rather, its likely result would be a lengthy furlough and a trip home until exchanged.

On June 28 the War Department issued General Orders No. 72. The orders announced that furloughs would not be granted to paroled prisoners. Instead, parolees were to report to one of three parole camps established for their reception. Those from the East would go to a facility near Annapolis soon to be christened Camp Parole. Parolees belonging to Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Indiana, and Michigan regiments were ordered to Camp Chase near Columbus, Ohio. The War Department designated Benton Barracks, located near St. Louis, for paroled soldiers from Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Missouri.

Benton Barracks was the first parole camp to receive large contingents of men. On July 13 Colonel Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville, commander of the post, reported that 1,167 had just arrived. They reached the camp "without officers and with extraordinary opinions of duties proper for them." Specifically, the soldiers insisted that the terms of their paroles precluded them from performing any military duties whatsoever. They refused to stand guard duty or to perform garrison duty. Bonneville disagreed, and many ended up in the guard house adorned by a ball and chain. [7]

Many did not bother to remain in the camp, opting instead for "French leave" and risking being charged with desertion. On February 1, 1862, Bonneville reported that there were 818 parolees at Benton Barracks and 971 reported absent.

To the east, paroled soldiers began arriving at Camp Chase in August 1862. By September 9 Ohio Governor David Tod was complaining to Washington, "It is with great difficulty we can preserve order among [the paroled soldiers] at Camp Chase." He suggested arming them and sending them to Minnesota to help quell an uprising of the Sioux Indians. Stanton liked the idea, and on the 17 th he sent Major General Lewis “Lew” Wallace to Camp Chase to take charge of the parolees and organize them for a Minnesota campaign. [8]

The conditions Wallace found at the camp, recently a Union prison, appalled him. "They were stained a rusty black," he later wrote of the quarters, "the windows were stuffed with old hats and caps. The roofs were of plank, and in places planks were gone, leaving gaping crevices to skylight the dismal interior." Writing to Washington, Wallace reported that only two thousand of the five thousand men who were supposed to be there were present, "and if they have deserted they should not be blamed." Scores lacked shoes, socks, and breeches. "I assembled them on the parade ground and rode amongst them," Wallace wrote, "and the smell from their ragged clothes was worse than an ill-conducted slaughterhouse." Wallace concluded that the men were no better off than they would have been in a Confederate prison. [9]

Wallace attempted to make effective regiments of the demoralized troops, but the odds were against him. He established a new camp, dubbed Camp Lew Wallace, a few miles away. His plan was to march the men to Columbus to receive back pay then send them on to the new camp to be organized. This, Wallace believed, would separate the willing from the unwilling. Instead, the pay provided the parolees with the means to desert. In one instance, several men from one company fled down the side streets of Columbus, never reaching the new camp.

Those that remained, whether at Camp Chase or Camp Lew Wallace, proved little more cooperative. Neighboring farmers complained of missing fence rails and slaughtered hogs. As at Benton Barracks, the parolees resented orders requiring them to perform various military duties. "There is great dissatisfaction among the paroled men," an Ohio soldier informed his family. "Gen. Wallace requires them to perform camp duty, when their parole positively says they must not perform such duty until exchanged." The controversy was so great, he added, that there was "a prospect of it terminating in a battle." Another man seemed to confirm the prediction, writing in his diary, "Boys have been playing the Devil generaly. Burn the guard house. Whip all the officers who show their heads." As for himself, "I am getting tired of this playing soldier." [10]

Lew Wallace was getting tired of it too. On September 26 he begged Stanton not to send any more paroled men to Columbus. "It is impossible to do anything with those now in Camp Chase," he complained. "Every detachment that arrives only swells a mob already dangerous." On October 18 he announced that he had organized all the parolees into regiments. To make his point clear, he added, "Having thus discharged all the duties required of me at this post I have no doubt of being able to take the field, with a command suitable to my rank." [11]

The story was the same at Camp Parole. One of the first parolees to arrive there noted in his diary, "The officers tried to make us do guard duty around the camp but it was no go as we all hung together and would not do it." At least one officer was sympathetic with the men’s position. A Pennsylvania officer, "who has been in other wars," informed the men that performing "any duties for our government" would be a violation of the men’s paroles. [12]

Of more immediate concern to the parolees was their government’s failure to prepare for them. Rations were in short supply, adding insult to injury for men who had suffered at such Confederate prisons as Belle Isle. Many of the men turned to marauding. One diarist observed that the paroled soldiers spent their days roaming the countryside in search of apples, pears, peaches, and "everything they can lay their hands on." A banner blackberry crop supplemented many men’s rations. Others went fishing for crabs in Chesapeake Bay. [13]

Civilians and their crops were not the only victims of the marauding. "Law and order is not known, and crime goes unpunished," a New York soldier observed of the camp. Fights were common, particularly after dark. Robbery was often the motive. Sometimes the deeds were perpetrated by individuals, but gangs also roamed the camp, seeking out men who had recently received their pay. [14]

Colonel George Sangster, Camp Parole’s commanding officer, put much of the blame on liquor, which the men were able to purchase in Annapolis. When pay was issued in November, the result, according to one parolee, was "gambling, drinking & everything attending to a reckless demoralized collection of thoughtless beings calling themselves human." Sangster attempted to shut down saloons that sold to soldiers, as did his successor, Col. Adrian Root, with virtually no success. [15]

The most serious incident at Camp Parole occurred on September 22. The camp sutler, termed an "army vulture" by parolee, had constructed a dining hall and storehouse and secured a stock of goods reportedly valued at $15,000. A private went there for breakfast only to be told that officers would be served first. When the man objected, he was kicked out and placed under guard. Word of the incident quickly spread, and before long about a thousand angry soldiers were at the scene. They freed their comrade and proceeded to loot the establishment of food, cigars, tobacco, and anything else they could find. The sutler attempted to stop them until a champagne bottle thrown by one of the rioters struck him in the head. Guards sent to quell the disturbance were sympathetic to the men. The raiders did not quit until they had dismantled the store and carried off the lumber for tent flooring. [16]

Dispatched to Camp Parole to investigate reports of a lack of discipline, Colonel Hoffman conceded that there were a few "deficiencies," but overall considered the men well cared for. In his final report, Hoffman put most of the blame on the paroled men, writing, "The greatest obstacle in the way of a favorable state of things [at Camp Parole] is the anxiety of the men to go to their homes and their unwillingness to do anything to better their condition." [17]

Despite the blithe assessment he offered his superior, Hoffman realized that Camp Parole’s problems went deeper. To address them he ordered the construction of a new camp. Barracks would replace the tents in which the men were being housed. The camp would also be made more compact, which the commissary general believed would lead to improvements in policing and discipline. The men occupied the new barracks on September 1, 1863, just as the exchange cartel was collapsing.

Another parole camp opened after the capture of Harpers Ferry, Virginia and its 12,000 Union defenders by Confederate forces on September 15, 1862. The prisoners were quickly paroled and started for Annapolis, where they arrived following a tough four-day march. They soon learned that their stay at Camp Parole would be brief. On the 22 nd the men were informed that they were bound for Chicago.

Some ended up at Camp Douglas, a Union training camp that had been pressed into service as a military prison. It was christened Camp Tyler, in honor of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler, the crusty old veteran placed in command of the paroled men at Chicago. Most were housed outside the camp in an area known as the Fairgrounds. Horse stables served as quarters for a large percentage of the parolees, with eight men crowded into the ten-by-fifteen foot stalls. Even these conditions led to few complaints at first. However, with the onset of cold weather and an increase in the sick list, the men’s patience was tried.

Rumors that they were to be sent to Minnesota to help fight Indians soured the parolees’ dispositions even more. On October 5 the Chicago Tribune published the terms of the exchange cartel. The men zeroed in on Article 6, which forbade the paroled soldiers from performing any "field, garrison, police, guard, or constabulary duties" until exchanged. After the article appeared, Tyler predicted, "I shall have hard work to keep our men quiet." [18]

Tyler’s prediction proved accurate. Soon the parolees were attacking the fence every night, the saloons and other attractions of Chicago proving to be a magnet to the soldiers. The guards proved powerless to stop them. The few who were willing to stand duty found their bayonets bent and the barrels of their weapons filled with sand or acorns. Others were physically attacked by the unruly soldiers. One night an enlisted parolee put on a captain’s uniform, gathered some friends, and marched the entire group to the guard line. The phony captain told the guards they were being relieved by a new regiment and ordered them back to quarters. After they departed, so did the supposed relief. When the sergeant of the guard came around with the legitimate relief guard, he found the line vacant.

In mid-October the men at Camp Douglas determined to destroy their camp by fire. The first broke out on the 17 th . The blaze, aided by a strong wind, destroyed eleven barracks. It would have claimed more had volunteer axmen not worked quickly to tear down structures in the path of the flames. Four nights later a smaller fire claimed two buildings.

It was on the night of October 22, Tyler reported, that "the crisis came." He placed the blame on the Sixtieth Ohio, a unit that was so insubordinate that he placed the entire outfit under arrest. "To my great gratification," Tyler reported, "our paroled men with arms in their hands stood to duty and the Sixtieth Regiment caved in." Tyler brought in a company of the Sixteenth United States Infantry, with which he hoped to maintain order. "I claim this capitulation covers all the duties and I mean to enforce them," he concluded. [19]

Tyler’s assessment proved accurate. Over the next few days camp diarists recorded a few incidents of drunkenness and other violations, but nothing serious in nature. Meanwhile, Major General John Pope eased tensions even more by announcing that he had quelled the Sioux uprising in Minnesota. Soon the Chicago regiments were being exchanged, which further improved the parolees’ dispositions.

The main Confederate parole camp was first located at Demopolis, Alabama. On June 3, 1863, Maj. Henry C. Davis, the commanding officer, reported that the men were "very comfortably situated here, requiring no tents, as they occupy the Fair Grounds." However, many were also "in a destitute condition, having no clothes or money." [20] The numbers at Demopolis soon swelled, as did the problems. On July 4, 1863, Confederate commander Lieutenant General John Clifford Pemberton surrendered the garrison at Vicksburg, some 20,000 number. General Grant paroled all his prisoners. The Confederates gave the parolees a thirty-day furlough, after which time they were to report to camps in their home states. Those from Alabama were ordered to Demopolis.

The concerns the paroled men brought to Demopolis would have sounded familiar to Union officials. Many believed the terms of their paroles prohibited them from bearing arms, even for the purpose of drilling. Others asserted that they were exempt from all military service, including remaining at a parole camp until exchanged. On September 9 Brigadier General William Montgomery Gardner, then commanding at Demopolis, appealed to the War Department. "Up to this time there has been very little disposition evinced on the part [of] the paroled men to return to this point," Gardner quaintly reported. More bluntly, he continued, "I do not think they will come in in any large numbers unless some strong measures are adopted." Specifically, he called for the publication of "an order from an authoritative source." [21]

Gardner had a personal stake in making his appeal. Many of the men who should have been reporting to Demopolis had been serving under his command when he was forced to surrender Port Hudson, Louisiana after the fall of Vicksburg. Nevertheless, the order he called for would not be issued until January.

In the meantime, Lieutenant General William Joseph Hardee was placed in command of all Vicksburg and Port Hudson parolees. Hardee moved their rendezvous from Demopolis to Enterprise and attempted to appeal to their patriotism. "Soldiers," he declared on August 27, "look at your country! The earth ravaged, property carried away or disappearing in flames and ashes, the people murdered, negroes arrayed against whites. He who falters in this hour of his country’s peril is a wretch who would compound for the mere boon of life robbed of all that makes life tolerable." He appealed to the men, "Come to your colors and stand beside your comrades, who with heroic constancy are confronting the enemy." [22]

In November Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk succeeded Hardee and tried his own patriotic proclamation. "It is hoped," he declared on the 20th, "that the gallant men who, by their courage and heroic sacrifices, have made Vicksburg and Port Hudson immortal, will need no new appeals to induce them to make their future military history as glorious as their past." [23]

Perhaps the men did not see Vicksburg and Port Hudson in the same glorious terms that Polk did or perhaps they sincerely believed their paroles released them from military duty until exchanged. Whatever the reason, Polk experienced the same problems the commanders before him had encountered. "It is contended by many of them that they are forbidden by that [parole] instrument from assembling in military camps at all, or performing any military duty whatever," he informed the War Department, "and holding that construction they refuse to come into camp or attempt to leave at their pleasure." Many had crossed the Mississippi and gotten beyond his authority. Like Gardner before him, Polk called for stern orders from the War Department. [24]

Although the exchange cartel freed thousands of prisoners, and likely saved the lives of a large percentage, the agreement was doomed to failure. The disagreements surfaced early. On October 5, 1862, Robert Ould, the Confederate agent of exchange, sent a list of nine grievances to Lieutenant Colonel William Handy Ludlow, his Union counterpart. Some of the issues were minor. For example, Ould complained of the small numbers of exchanged men who arrived aboard some flag-of-truce boats. Most of his points concerned citizens or irregular troops held in close confinement. Ould concluded, "I do not utter in the way of a threat, but candor demands that I should say that if this course is persisted in the Confederate Government will be compelled by a sense of duty to its own citizens to resort to retaliatory measures." Of course it was a threat, and it was not the last made by either side. [25]

The issue that eventually ended the cartel was that of black soldiers. In July 1862 congress gave the president authority to accept blacks into the army. Following the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect the following January 1, many were recruited. Nearly 200,000 served during the course of the war.

The Union policy was greeted with outrage in the South. On May 1, 1863, that outrage was codified by the Confederate congress. A joint resolution declared that captured black soldiers would be turned over to the states and presumably returned to slavery. Their white officers would be "deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall if captured be put to death or otherwise punished at the discretion of the court." [26] Ludlow’s response was vociferous. He termed the resolution "a gross and inexcusable breach of the cartel in both letter and spirit" and reminded Ould that color was never mentioned in the agreement. He concluded, "I now give you formal notice that the United States will throw its protection around all its officers and men without regard to color and will promptly retaliate for all cases violating the cartel or the laws and usages of war." [27]

Ludlow’s threats were soon made into formal Union policy. On May 25 orders went out to all department commanders that no Confederate officers were to be paroled or exchanged. On July 13 Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered that no more prisoners of any rank be delivered to City Point, Virginia for exchange. Ludlow believed this order went too far. When he protested, he was relieved and replaced by Brigadier General Sullivan Amory Meredith, who took a hard line in his negotiations with Ould.

The Union’s true motives in rendering the cartel a dead letter have long been the subject of speculation and debate among historians. Victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg had left the Union in a much stronger position militarily. They also left the North with an advantage in the numbers of prisoners held.

General Grant would soon become general-in-chief and a determined foe of exchange. In an oft-quoted message, he would assert, "It is hard on our men held in Southern prisons not to exchange them, but it is humanity to those left in the ranks to fight our battles. Every man we hold, when released on parole or otherwise, becomes an active soldier against us at once either directly or indirectly. If we commence a system of exchange which liberates all prisoners taken, we will have to fight on until the whole South is exterminated. If we hold those caught they amount to no more than dead men." [28]

At the same time, there is nothing in the documentary evidence indicating that the Union government was motivated by anything beyond a concern for the fate of its black soldiers. Stanton’s annual report to the president cited the South’s refusal to exchange black captives as the cause of the collapse of the cartel. Southern leaders at the time and some historians since have insisted that the North’s advantage in manpower was the true motive. The South would never, however, test this theory by offering to exchange black troops. Rather, Ould asserted, the Confederates would "die in the last ditch" before conceding that point. [29]

The strongest evidence that the Union government had no interest in resuming the cartel came in late 1863 when Major General. Benjamin Franklin Butler was named the North’s special agent of exchange. As military governor of Louisiana, Butler had been labeled the "Beast" by Southerners outraged by his actions. Among them was the hanging of a man who had hauled down an American flag. On another occasion Butler announced that any woman who insulted Federal soldiers would be "regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation." [30] Despite the South’s enmity, the publicity-hungry general worked hard to arrange a resumption of the cartel. Working in his favor was the fact that 1864 was a presidential election year, and the public clamor for exchange was as strong as ever. On September 9 Butler and Ould agreed to occasional exchanges of sick and wounded captives who would remain unfit for duty for at least sixty days.

Transports delivered many of the Union parolees to Camp Parole. Two years earlier paroled prisoners had few kind words for the Maryland facility. However, to men who had spent time at Andersonville and other Southern pens, it was a paradise. They received clean clothes, hearty meals, and a certain freedom of movement. As one former Andersonville prisoner observed, "This is a nice camp-- something like living." [31] Many of the men sent from Northern camps started too late for home. Of the five hundred sent in the first detachment from Elmira, thirty died en route. Many others arrived close to death. Some of the blame rested with the Northern Central Railroad, which took forty hours to deliver the men, crammed into boxcars, the 260 miles to Baltimore. Still, Josiah Simpson, Baltimore’s medical director, believed officials at the prison bore the bulk of the responsibility. "The condition of these men was pitiable in the extreme," he reported, "and evinces criminal neglect and inhumanity on the part of the medical officers making the selection of men to be transferred." Visiting the steamer that was about to deliver the prisoners to the Confederacy, Simpson found forty men who were so feeble that he felt they should not be allowed to travel. However, he heeded their pleas to be allowed to continue on toward home. [32]

There matters remained until early 1865. By then Grant had ridded himself of Butler and was largely handling exchange negotiations himself. The Confederacy’s days were clearly numbered, allowing the general-in-chief to moderate his previous position. On January 13 he approved a Confederate proposal for the release of all prisoners held in close confinement. Then, on February 2, Grant suddenly informed Stanton that he was making arrangements to exchange about 3,000 prisoners a week. Still, he had not totally abandoned his practical concerns. He insisted that Confederates from states firmly under Union control and captives unfit for duty be exchanged first.

In one instance Grant’s practicality went too far even for Stanton. At most Union prisons large numbers of captives did not want to return to the Confederate army. Some camp commandants honored their wish not to be exchanged. Hearing of this, Grant insisted that it made sense to return unwilling Rebels first. However, General Henry Halleck, Lincoln’s military chief of staff, concluded that it was "contrary to the usages of war to force a prisoner to return to the enemy’s ranks." This view became Union policy, and orders went out to all commandants against sending away prisoners who preferred not to be exchanged. [33]

For thousands of captives exchange did not come soon enough. At the Confederate prison at Salisbury a burial sergeant recorded 3,406 deaths from October 1864 through January 1865. The toll was also high at the Florence, South Carolina prison. One of the sad ironies of the war is the fact that February 1865, when general exchanges were resumed, was also the month that the number of deaths peaked at the eight largest Union prisons. The toll was 1,646, including 499 at Camp Chase alone. Many had been captured during Lieutenant General John Bell Hood’s disastrous Tennessee campaign. Large numbers arrived at various camps ill, shoeless, and nearly naked.

Those who survived did not have long to wait before the final release came. Eager to get out of the prison business, the government emptied its depots quickly when the war ended and worked hard to return Union captives from the South. Sadly this ultimate exchange came only after the deaths of over 30,000 Yankees and more than 25,000 Rebels in Civil War prisons.

  • [1] United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1880-1901), Series II, volume 1, 504-505. (hereinafter cited as O.R., II, 1, 504-505)
  • [2] O.R., II, 1, 511.
  • [3] Philip Shaw Paludan, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. (Lawrence KS: University of Kansas Press, 1994), 53.
  • [4] O.R., II, 3, 157.
  • [5] New York Times, June 23, 1862.
  • [6] O.R., II, 4, 265-268.
  • [7] O.R., II, 4, 191.
  • [8] O.R., II, 4, 499.
  • [9] Lew Wallace, Lew Wallace: An Autobiography. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906), Vol. 2, 632-633 Lew Wallace to Lorenzo Thomas, September 21, 1862, Letters Sent from Headquarters, U.S. Paroled Forces, Columbus, Ohio, Record Group 393, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • [10] Abner Royce to parents, October 3, 1862, Royce Family Papers, Mss. 1675, Western Reserve Historical Library, Cleveland William L. Curry Diary, November 6, 1862, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • [11] O.R., II, 4, 563 Wallace to Thomas, October 18, 1862, Letters Sent from Headquarters, U.S. Paroled Forces, Columbus, Ohio, Record Group 393, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.
  • [12] Henry N. Bemis Diary, July 24, 1862, Musselman Library, Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, PA Jerome J. Robbins Diary, July 26, 1862, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • [13] Simon Hulbert Diary, September 20, 1862, New York Historical Society.
  • [14] William Harrison to "Cousin Frank," November 29, 1862, William Harrison Letter, Accession 40494, Personal Papers Collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond.
  • [15] Robbins Diary, November 13, 1862, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
  • [16] Ibid., September 22, 1862.
  • [17] O.R., II, 5, 6 O.R., II, 5, 348.
  • [18] O.R., II, 4, 600.
  • [19] Ibid., 644-645.
  • [20] O.R., II, 5, 967.
  • [21] O.R., II, 6, pp. 273-274.
  • [22] Ibid., 232-233.
  • [23] Ibid., 542-543.
  • [24] Ibid., 6, 558.
  • [25] O.R., II, 4, 602.
  • [26] O.R., II, 5, 940.
  • [27] O.R., II, 6, 17-18.
  • [28] O.R., II, 7, 607.
  • [29] O.R., II, 6, 226.
  • [30] Patricia L. Faust, ed., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War. (New York: Harper & Row, 1986), 840.
  • [31] Henry H. Stone Diary, December 17, 1864, Andersonville National Historic Site, Andersonville, GA.
  • [32] O.R., II, 7, 894.
  • [33] O.R., II, 8, 239.

If you can read only one book:

Pickenpaugh, Roger, Captives in Blue: The Civil War Prison of the Confederacy. Tuscaloosa AL: University of Alabama Press, forthcoming.


Footnotes

1 William C. Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist,” in Howard Rabinowitz ed., Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982): 30.

1 William C. Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist,” in Howard Rabinowitz ed., Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982): 30.

2 Lawrence Otis Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty (New York: HarperCollins, 2006): 11 Grace E. Collins, “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” in Jessie Carney Smith ed., Notable Black American Men (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1999): 144 (hereinafter referred to as NBAM).

2 Lawrence Otis Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty (New York: HarperCollins, 2006): 11 Grace E. Collins, “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” in Jessie Carney Smith ed., Notable Black American Men (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1999): 144 (hereinafter referred to as NBAM).

3 Bruce’s family situation was complicated. His half siblings through his mother and Lemuel Bruce included Sandy, Calvin, James, and Henry and a half sister whose name is not known. His full siblings through his mother and Pettis Perkinson included Howard, Edward, Robert, Eliza, and Mary. See Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 10–11, 16–17.

4 Collins, “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” NBAM: 144.

6 William C. Harris, “Bruce, Blanche Kelso,” American National Biography 3 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 779–780 (hereinafter referred to as ANB).

7 Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): 29.

8 Collins, “Blanche Kelso Bruce,” NBAM:145.

9 Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist”: 11–12.

11 Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 68–70, 76 quoted in Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist”: 20.

12 Pinchback had recently been elected an At–Large Representative from Louisiana, and while his election was being contested, he was elected by the state legislature to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. His selection for the Senate seat also was contested. He was rejected by both houses on charges of bribery and corruption. See Eric R. Jackson, “Pinchback, P. B. S.,” ANB 17: 527–529.

13 Congressional Record, Senate, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (31 March 1876): 2101–2105 Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 80–81.

14 The Navy had long accepted blacks. Predictably, its race record suffered during the Jim Crow decades. Few blacks secured appointments to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and none matriculated as officers. In the 1880s, black sailors were routinely denied promotions and assigned to perform menial tasks or labor. See David Osher’s essay “Race Relations and War,” The Oxford Companion to American Military History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 585.

15 Congressional Record, Senate, 46th Cong., 3rd sess. (10 February 1881): 1397–1398.

16 See S. 865, 46th Congress, 2nd session.

17 Congressional Record, Senate, 46th Cong., 2nd sess. (7 April 1880): 2195–2196. Bruce was supporting a bill selling federal lands to the Ute Indians in Colorado (S. 1509), which passed and was approved by President Rutherford B. Hayes in the 46th Congress (1879–1881).

18 Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist”: 22.

19 Samuel L. Shapiro, “Bruce, Blanche Kelso,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: Norton, 1982): 74–76 (hereinafter referred to as DANB).

20 Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist”: 27, 33. See also Thomas C. Holt, Black Over White:Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977).

21 Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 116.

22 Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist”: 19.

23 Shapiro, “Bruce, Blanche Kelso,” DANB.

24 Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: 30. Bruce’s family continued his legacy of public service and focus on education. Josephine Bruce was the principal of the Tuskegee Institute and was active in the National Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Bruce’s son, Roscoe Conkling Bruce, and his grandson, Roscoe Bruce, Jr., graduated with honors from Harvard University. The latter was embroiled in controversy when Harvard’s president refused to admit him into the dormitories in 1923.


Mine Warfare in the Civil War

Early in the Civil War, hard-pressed Confederate Army officers in the West, like Major General Leonidas K. Polk, knew they were particularly exposed to the Union Army and Navy. Less than a day’s cavalry ride from Polk’s headquarters at Columbus, Kentucky, the Union was building a fleet of attack gunboats up the Mississippi River above Cairo, Illinois. At the same time, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant had moved more Union soldiers into Cairo at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. He was poised either to move down the Mississippi toward Belmont, Missouri, to remove the heavy chain the Confederates were using to block the river, or he could fall upon Paducah, Kentucky, on the Ohio and threaten Nashville and interior Tennessee.

Polk realized that he needed assistance to prevent Union forces from driving unimpeded into the South. A longtime acquaintance of Matthew Fontaine Maury, former superintendent of the Naval Observatory and now head of Confederate coastal defense, Polk, who had taken off his robes as an Episcopal bishop to fight for the South, wrote, “I feel constrained to urge upon you the necessity of at once furnishing me an officer familiar with the subject of submarine batteries and capable of a practicable application of this species of defense to the Mississippi River.”

Torpedoes, weapons better known as mines today, form a little-known albeit important part of Civil War history. When this irregular style of warfare is written about with regards to the Civil War, it usually is confined to small books about the Confederate Secret Service or the Confederate Navy, emphasizing men like Maury, one of the era’s leading scientists, and his protégés Lieutenants Hunter Davidson and Isaac Brown. Eclipsed over time has been the work of John Bankhead Magruder, brothers Gabriel and George Rains (all of three U.S. Military Academy graduates and former U.S. Army officers) and Thomas Courtenay, in transforming mine warfare from defensive to offensive ashore and afloat.

By pushing the limits of nineteenth century technology against a backdrop of a deteriorating military situation, they set off explosive debates inside the Confederate government and Army over the ethics of using “weapons that wait.” These debates over the ethics of mine warfare did not end in 1865.

In December 1861, Polk received help in mine warfare, not from Maury, but rather from Brown, who took mine warfare from the water—there already had been attacks on Union warships in Hampton Roads and along the Potomac—to land. Brown buried iron containers loaded with explosives that were to be detonated electronically along two routes leading into Columbus, but Union soldiers discovered the torpedoes and dismantled them before they could be detonated.

Back in the Eastern Theater, Major General Magruder commanded Confederate forces on the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James Rivers. Back in the 1850s, he had witnessed how the Russians effectively used mines defending Sebastopol and Kronstadt as an observer in the Crimean War. His interest in mine warfare increased when he was posted to Washington where his brother George served as chief of the Navy’s Ordnance Bureau. He also established a strong friendship with Maury. On Navy organization charts, Maury answered to Magruder’s brother the reality for almost two decades was bureau chiefs like Navy Secretaries came and went, but the superintendent remained at the observatory.

Magruder, an amateur actor who earned the nicknamed “Prince John,” is best remembered for deceiving Major General George B. McClellan and his Army of the Potomac during the early part of the Peninsula campaign in 1862. He marched and counter-marched his troops, moved his few cannon from place to place in the day, and felled pine trees and painted them black to look like artillery along a 13-mile defensive line around Yorktown, all designed to make his force appear larger than the 33,000 men he commanded.

What is not as well known is that Magruder was the first commander to employ mines on a large scale during the Civil War. With orders from Magruder and guidance from Brigadier General Gabriel Rains, Confederate soldiers began hiding crude explosive devices (early versions of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs) made from artillery shells or other materiel in the sandy soil around Yorktown, along the town’s streets and roads, inside houses, and around telegraph poles. After Yorktown was abandoned in early May 1862, Union forces reported several serious injuries and a few deaths from these “booby traps.” While ignoring his own superiors’ concerns about using “deceptive devices” in land warfare, Rains was conflicted about using buried shells on the roads leading from Fortress Monroe to Yorktown. With so many civilians on the few roads fleeing the Union advance, Rains decided against indiscriminately burying the mines. Mining the fortifications and the town was a different story.

Rains had considerably more experience with mines than Magruder. In the long-running Seminole Wars (1816-1858) in Florida, he had experimented with the use of mines against the Seminole warriors. Shortly before the Peninsula campaign, Rains, a North Carolinian, was engaged in mining efforts in the James and the York Rivers to disrupt the Union Navy. He was well suited for this unusual mission, having patented a specialized torpedo effective in the water and on land. Rains’s younger brother, George Washington Rains, a lieutenant colonel in the Confederate Army, was an eager disciple in mine warfare. Together, the two became known as the “Bomb Brothers.”

Following the Battle of Williamsburg on 5 May, Rains suppressed his earlier qualms about mining roads to cover the retreat of his wounded. He had his soldiers bury four artillery shells on the main road leading to Richmond. A lawyer watching a Union cavalry advance come to a standstill when the shells exploded on contact with the horses’ hooves noted, “They never moved a peg after hearing the report.” Years later, Rains boasted “these four shells checkmated the advance of 115,000 men under General McClellan and turned them from their line of march.”

In his official report on Yorktown and Williamsburg, Union Brigadier General William F. Barry angrily denounced the Rains brothers’ actions. He had particular scorn for Gabriel “for disgracing the uniform of the American Army during the Seminole war in Florida” and doing it again against his former comrades in arms.

In response to the mines, Major General George B. McClellan, who also had been an American observer of the Crimean War, vowed to “make the prisoners remove [the mines] at their own peril,” and soon began ordering Confederate prisoners to clear mines at Yorktown. This threat was repeated by Major General William Sherman and Read Admiral David Dixon Porter later in the war.

Magruder’s and the Rains brothers’ successes with landmines set off new debates over using “weapons that wait” to maim or kill soldiers, rather than against boats and ships. Major General Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander on the Peninsula, was hesitant to condone their use. Brigadier General James Longstreet, however, openly condemned Gabriel Rains’s actions at Yorktown and Williamsburg. Confederate Secretary of War George Randolph finally stepped in to end the increasingly heated argument between the two. Randolph, who was Thomas Jefferson’s grandson, drafted a series of “do’s and don’ts” that may have eased some consciences in what was now becoming total war. He wrote, “It is admissible to plant shells in a parapet to repel assault, or in a road to check pursuit,” but added, “It is not admissible to plant shells merely to destroy life and without other design than that of depriving the enemy of a few men.”

Gabriel Rains, a former West Point classmate of Polk, was named commander of the “submarine defenses of the James and Appomattox Rivers” and later chief of the Conscription Bureau, seemingly dead-end positions for an ambitious but aging Army officer. However, he caught the attention of President Jefferson Davis, who graduated from West Point the year after Rains. He was then named commander of the newly created Torpedo Bureau inside the War Department. Davis quickly dispatched him to Johnston in Mississippi in a vain effort to break the siege of Vicksburg. All of Johnston’s reservations about torpedoes resurfaced as soon as Rains arrived. Known for his deliberate approach to warfare, Johnston uncharacteristically hustled Rains out of sight, sending him to Mobile to defend the Gulf Coast port. Before departing Vicksburg, Rains left behind a few shells buried in the river bank that were found and disabled when the Confederate forces surrendered the city. Other mines placed along two roads leading out of the town slowed the Union approach to Jackson, the state capital.

Davis, who had been at odds with Johnston over strategy and tactics almost from the day after the Rebel victory at First Manassas, countermanded Johnston’s orders. The president instead ordered Rains to Charleston, South Carolina. Forts and batteries around the city were under attack by monitors on the water, with a blockading fleet behind them ably supported from Port Royal about sixty miles away. In addition, the Union Army occupied some of the barrier islands around the city’s harbor.

At Charleston, Rains found a superior officer, General P.G.T. Beauregard, consumed with the defense of Charleston and open to new ideas. Beauregard, who first drew notice during the bombardment of Fort Sumter in April 1861, saw the addition of Rains as invaluable to holding the forts on the barrier islands, closing the coastal rivers to Union gunboats, and blocking the shipping channels to any would-be attacker. In large measure, Rains succeeded—Charleston did not fall until the Union Army captured it on 18 February 1865.

When ordered to Mobile the second time in mid-February 1864, Rains worked with Victor von Scheliha, Confederate Corps of Engineers, in layering the defenses of the port with mines, various obstructions, artillery emplacements, and improved forts. When Union Rear Admiral David Glasgow Farragut’s fleet sailed into Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864, his force, while eventually victorious, paid a heavy price in ships and men.

Outside Mobile, Union soldiers advancing on Spanish Fort in April 1865, months after Farragut closed off the escape routes to the Gulf of Mexico, found hundreds of Rains’s land mines still in place. No federal soldiers, however, were killed or wounded because the safety caps to prevent them for detonating prematurely had not been removed.

As technology advanced, in part through George Rains’s tenure as commander of the Confederate arsenal at Augusta, Georgia, and more officers employed torpedoes, new political and ethical questions surfaced. Davis rejected schemes to launch mine attacks from Canada on canal locks along the Great Lakes as he was hesitant to destroy civilian targets.

Despite Davis’s qualms, many in the Confederate Army continued to question how far the South should go in taking mine warfare to Northern civilian life and commerce. Since the war began, Missouri Confederates had been sabotaging Union shipping on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers by placing explosives in the firewood used to for fuel on steamboats. For them, the next logical step was to find a way to disguise explosives in other fuels, and they were spurred on by a new law authorizing bounties for inventors of devices that could sink Union warships.

What triggered significant debate was the “coal torpedo,” an explosive device set in a block of cast iron “dipped in beeswax and pitch and covered with coal dust.” The coal torpedo was developed by Belfast-born Thomas Courtenay, who was authorized to employ up to twenty-five volunteers to cast and distribute these devices, with their pay coming for the bounties authorized by the Confederate War Department.

James A. Seddon, Randolph’s successor as Confederate Secretary of War, now had to devise new rules of engagement. He ordered “passenger vessels of citizens of the United States on the high seas and private property in the water and [on] railroads or within the territory of the United States…not to be subject of operations” using Courtenay’s devices. “But the public property of the enemy may be destroyed wherever it may be found,” he added.

As the war neared its end, the Confederates also added timers to the torpedoes to better sabotage barges, transports, warehouses, and armories in North America—all “public property of the enemy.” No attack was more deadly than the Confederate strike at City Point, Virginia, the site Lieutenant General Grant’s headquarters and the Union Army’s primary logistics center during the siege of Petersburg.

Located at present-day Hopewell where the Appomattox River joins the James, City Point included landings, a huge warehouse divided into offices and sections for ammunition, commissary stores, and other supplies, and rail tracks to move replacements, equipment, ammunition, provisions, and livestock from transport vessels to Union soldiers in the trenches. At the foot of a hill leading away from the rivers were a post office, express office, the quartermaster’s office, the Sanitary Commission post at the edge of the water, and sutlers’ establishments. A New York Tribune correspondent reported in the summer of 1864 that the hill itself was “a city of tents” with a dozen or so large frame residences on it, all being used by the Union Army.

There was also a huge depot hospital—originally 1,200 tents and later 90 wooden buildings and 452 tents—and a U.S. Colored Hospital with physicians and surgeons accompanied by volunteer nurses from the Union Army and the Sanitary Commission in both facilities.

In early August 1864, under orders from Rains, Captain John Maxwell of the Confederate Secret Service left Richmond for Isle of Wight County, Virginia, with a special box loaded with twelve pounds of explosives and a timer. After meeting up with R.K. Dillard, another agent of the Confederate Secret Service who knew the lay of the land between eastern Tidewater and City Point, they traveled mostly by night “and crawled upon our knees to pass the east picket line” closest to the wharf, warehouse, tents, and hastily-constructed buildings for the huge depot.

Once inside Union lines on 9 August, Maxwell told Dillard to stay put about a half mile from the wharf. The cautious Maxwell continued the mission and found out that the captain of an explosives-laden barge at the wharf had left his vessel. When a sentinel stopped him on the wharf, Maxwell bluffed his way forward by saying that the captain had ordered him to take a box containing “candles” aboard the barge. Then, as Maxwell later said, “Hailing a man from the barge I put the machine in motion and gave it in his charge,” who took it aboard. With the clock ticking, Maxwell found Dillard and they headed toward high ground and presumed safety.

About an hour later, the ammunition barge carrying between 20,000 and 30,000 artillery shells exploded along the wharf extending a third of a mile into the water. The Tribune correspondent compared the detonation to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum, writing, “Instead of lava and dust and ashes, it rained over the circle of a mile, in whole packages and by piece-meal, everything you can imagine at a military depot.”

In his report, Maxwell said that the explosion also destroyed another barge and most of the warehouse. “The scene was terrific, and the effect deafened my companion to an extent which he has not recovered,” he said. Maxwell also described himself as being “severely shocked” but that he had quickly recovered from the blast.

From the scene, African American war correspondent Thomas Morris Chester wrote, “Fragments of humanity were scattered around,” adding, “Those loudest in their grief were the contrabands who mourned their relatives and comrades. Being employed in great numbers where the accident occurred, more of them were killed and wounded than any other class of individuals.”

At City Point, the estimates of those killed ranged from more than fifty to 300. The estimates of wounded ranged from 126 by the Union officials to a number that “greatly exceeded that” in Maxwell’s view.

The following day, the Tribune correspondent reported the suspected causes of the explosion, which ranged from careless handling of explosives by the contrabands to an “old-time torpedo.” Some surmised a Rebel spy or a random shot.

The explosion required the efforts of 1,000 laborers to clear away the debris, rebuild the warehouse, and replace the wharf. Nine days after the attack that caused between $2 million and $4 million in damages, Union supply depot at City Point was back in business.

On 27 November 1864, the Confederates found more “public property of the enemy,” in the troop transport Greyhound steaming down the James River about five miles from Bermuda Hundred. Greyhound also served as Major General Benjamin Butler’s floating command post. Aboard the unarmed steamer with Butler were his staff, Major General Godfrey Weitzel, and Rear Admiral David Dixon Porter, now commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Meeting in the ship’s upper deck salon, they were discussing the pending attack on Fort Fisher and closing Wilmington, North Carolina, the last Confederate port on the Atlantic open to blockade runners. Greyhound was, in the words of today’s military terminology, an especially “high value target.”

From the start, Porter was uneasy being on an unarmed vessel with the Army of Northern Virginia occupying the northern banks of the James River. He was especially suspicious of the men he saw loading coal aboard the ship. As the ship headed downstream, a huge explosion rocked the engine room. Smoke filled the Greyhound, but the quick-thinking engineer “closed the throttle-valve, stopping the vessel, and opened the safety-valve,” letting the steam escape.

Porter knew instantly what had happened and was convinced it had to be one of the “coal torpedoes” that he had been told about during his time on the western rivers. Porter later wrote, “When the torpedo was thrown into the furnace with the coal, it soon burst, blowing the furnace-doors open and throwing the burning mass into the fire-room, where it communicated with the wood-work.”

Some men were blown overboard others jumped into the water to escape the fire. All were pulled safely from the river, and those who were still on board Greyhound were transferred to other ships that came to its rescue. The last to leave was Butler’s aide who had been scurrying about recovering the general’s papers. No people were killed in the explosion, but several of Butler’s horses died in the blast and subsequent fire and sinking.

In late March 1865, George Shepley, a judge in civilian life but now serving as Weitzel’s chief of staff, prepared his mix of white New Englanders, New Yorkers, and African American troops for an assault on Longstreet’s lines, south of Richmond. Despite Lieutenant General Longstreet’s earlier objections to the use of mines, Confederate engineers buried mines around the Confederate lines defending Petersburg.

As the Union soldiers spent a restless and sleepless Sunday night on 2 April expecting to attack the Rebel defenses in the morning, a continuing rumbling noise from the north could be heard. From a seventy-foot signal tower, one of Weitzel’s aides could see flames lighting up the night sky. Richmond was ablaze. The rumble was from the explosives used to fire the tobacco warehouses, as the Confederate government raced to leave the city.

Early on 3 April, Weitzel ordered a company to grab a Confederate picket to find out if Longstreet was still there. The soldier quickly told his captors that he did not know where the general was or his artillery unit. A black man driving a buggy through the Union lines shouted, “Dey am running from Richmun! Glory! Glory!” Other Confederate deserters confirmed the story that the capital was an “open city.”

In the early morning light, Shepley rode carefully forward toward the abandoned Confederate fortifications. He noticed “small squares of red cloth inserted in split sticks in the ground.” There was about an eighteen-inch separation between the two lines of abatis, each marking the placement of a torpedo, directly in front of Weitzel’s lines. Neither horse nor rider was injured as they passed through the Confederate fortifications.

Historians say that mines, or torpedoes, claimed thirty-five Union ships and one Confederate vessel during the Civil War. Gabriel Rains claimed fifty-eight in his postwar memoir, although he does not make clear whether he counted vessels of any size sunk by water-borne mines. Nor does he offer any estimates of how many sailors were killed or wounded by mines.

Furthermore, there are no accurate figures on how many soldiers and civilians were maimed or killed by “subterra” explosives planted to defend Yorktown, Williamsburg, Richmond, Jackson, Charleston, Savannah, Fort Fisher, and City Point, or the explosives used by the Union at the “Crater” outside Petersburg.

The practical Porter wrote, “In devices for blowing up vessels the Confederates were far ahead of us, putting Yankee ingenuity to shame.” He added in a touch of irony the Union inventor of a similar device approached him wanting to know how many “coal torpedoes” the Navy had used during the war “probably with the idea of claiming a royalty.”

The unnamed inventor was not the only one trying to exploit his skills in irregular warfare in the late 1860s. Maury, Davidson, Courtenay, and Rains all tried to play upon their names and reputations to make a living from their expertise, but none truly accomplished these goals.

The reasons for their lack of success were twofold. Technology moved too quickly for them. For example, Great Britain successfully fired an “auto-motive” torpedo on a moving ship in 1866, and France soon followed. There were by the late 1860s too many others in North America and Europe who had the same expertise and were willing to sell it at a discount in a buyer’s market.

Soon, a torpedo “arms race” commenced. The ethics questions proliferated as fast as the weapons were being used in battle. In the end, Rains best captured the moral dilemma of mine warfare, stating, “Each new invention of war has been assailed and denounced as barbarous and anti-Christian, yet each in its turn notwithstanding has taken its position by the universal consent of nations according to its efficiency in human slaughter.”


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