Civil War News Review

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Thursday, February 27, 2014

It’s Just a Matter of Time (Part 2 of 2)

The following observations come from other witnesses to the reconnaissance into Pitzer’s Woods.
In a letter to Col. John B. Bachelder, January 5, 1885, Col. Elijah Walker (4th Maine) related the following:

1.      At daylight, July 2, 1863 Confederate skirmishers west of the Rodgers House, engaged the pickets of the 4th Maine from the shelter Spangler’s Woods.

2.      Knowing the rebels were in force along his front, the colonel reported the situation to corps and division staff officers. 
a.       He asked for supports
b.      He received none
c.       They said there was no enemy in front of him and
d.      That the main force had fallen back

3.      Around 8:30 a.m., Col. Berdan, under orders from Birney, informed Walker that his men and the Berdans were to drive the Rebs from the woods.
a.       Walker told Berdan that the division could not do that and
b.      He did not think that Berdan and he could not do it either.
c.       It would be foolish to do so.

4.      About 9:30 a.m., the 3rd Maine and the sharpshooters attack the woods and verified the strong Rebel presence there.

The monument to the 3rd Maine in Pitzer’s Woods said the regiment was engaged there in the forenoon.
In Maine at Gettysburg, the historian said the advance occurred between 11 a.m. and noon.
Sergeant Hannibal Johnson (Co. B, 3rd Maine), who was captured during the attack, in Sword of Honor said the probe occurred on the early morning of July 2.

In the Official Records, General Cadmus Wilcox places the action at 9 a.m.

Colonel Hillary Herbert (8th Alabama) said it occurred around 7a.m.

The color bearer of the 3rd Maine said he was one of the first men hit that morning.

William Y. W. Ripley, in his Vermont Riflemen in the War for the Union (1883), says the action occurred about 9 a.m. He was a member of Co. F. He said the company spent the rest of the day skirmishing, which agrees with Trepp’s report and concurs with Garrett’s diary. 

The traditional account rests primarily upon 2 afteraction reports, which say that the skirmishing occurred between 11 a.m. and noon.

The two diaries say that the action occurred at noon. F. E. Garrett (Co. D) said the company had just come out of the fight at noon. Following the skirmish, the four companies, according to Lt. Col. Trepp, were placed in reserve of the center of the III Corps line. The regiment was in the fight until the afternoon, therefore Garrett could be referring to the action for the day and not just the Pitzer’s Woods incident.

Captain Marble’s Companies B and G went on the skirmish line northwest of the Rodgers House, west of the Emmitsburg Road at 8:30 a.m. They stayed in the vicinity until around 2:30 p.m. when the artillery assault began. Like Walker, who was at the Rodgers house, he could see the skirmish but I believe he erred on the time.

With the majority of the witnesses, in particular Buchanan, Walker, Ripley, Wilcox, Herbert, Johnson, Trepp, and Lakeman saying the reconnaissance occurred in the morning, I tend to believe that it did happen before the times stated by Berdan and Birney.

Sickles was not the incompetent politician turned soldier as portrayed in popular history. It takes more than an hour to get a corps moving. If the foray had happened at 11 a.m. or noon, his advance could not have happened at that time.

I believe it occurred between before 9:30 a.m. When the report reached Sickles, he had detachments go out and destroy the fences from Trostle’s to the Peach Orchard. The 86th New York sent a party out at 10 am to do just that. By noon, the II Corps was on the move.

I disagree totally with Buchanan. In battle, timing is extremely important. It is important because of its impact upon the timing and execution of maneuvers, which can potentially affect the outcome of a battle. On a human level, it is extremely important. A seemingly insignificant skirmish claims lives, cripples people, and leaves indelible memories upon the survivors. How many minutes of trauma does it take to change one person’s life forever? To the Berdan’s, the Mainers and the Alabamians the skirmish at Pitzer’s Woods, while a footnote in history, mattered because they were involved in it and they had to live with the scars it created.    

Thursday, February 20, 2014

It’s Just a Matter of Time (Part 1 of 2)

On July 2, 1889, the survivors of Companies A, B, D, and H, 1st U.S. Sharpshooters dedicated their monument in Pitzer’s Woods at Gettysburg. Lieutenant Charles J. Buchanan (Co. D) delivered an address in which he made the following statement:

“A great deal has been said and written as to when precisely these four companies (D, E, F, and I) left the regiment that morning; just when we moved into the woods; exactly how far we went; and how long we remained in the timber. None of these details are of the slightest consequence to what we actually accomplished….This is not as most of us remember it; but what is the use of quibbling over these nonessentials, thereby losing sight of its merits of our spirited and successful reconoissance [sic]?”
His offhand dismissal of the particulars of the skirmish was not as important as the results of it irritated me. He sounded a lot like a former a school principal, who at an in-service, told us we could teach history without teaching fact, that conclusions and not trivia were all that mattered. My mental response came from the Bill Mauldin cartoon in which Willie and Joe are sharing a muddy foxhole in Italy. One of them, while reading a newspaper lauding D-Day sarcastically quipped, “The Hell this ain’t the most important hole in the world. I’m in it.”

Despite his assertion that the facts did not matter, Buchanan expounded upon the exploits of the four companies and their alleged times of engagement by including every contemporary source he could find describing the foray. [Note: I italicized the references to the time of the attack.)

1.      Major General Daniel E. Sickles, III Corps commanding, wrote a letter apologizing because he could not attend the ceremony and added I should have found great satisfaction in meeting the survivors of the sharpshooters who made that brilliant reconnoisance [sic] one the morning of July 2, 1863.

2.      In his own account, Buchanan stated, “A great deal has been said and written as to when precisely these four companies (D, E, F, and I) left the regiment that morning...”

3.      Major General David Birney, in the Official Records, said Sickles gave him the order to send the sharpshooters with the 3rd Maine in support into the woods at 12 noon.

4.      Colonel Hiram Berdan, commanding the 1st U.S. Sharpshooters stated in his official report that around 11:00 a.m. Birney commanded him to make the reconnaissance.

5.      Lieutenant Colonel Casper Trepp, commanding the 1st U.S.S.S. on the field, in his report said that he deployed the regiment early in the morning and that in a short while he received an order to sent Companies D, E, F, and I forward to the woods with the 3rd Maine as support.

6.      Colonel Moses Lakeman, 3rd Maine, stated he formed his regiment parallel to and facing the Emmitsburg Road at early morn and shortly thereafter sent the regiment forward to support the sharpshooters.

7.      F. E. Garrett, Company D, wrote in his diary that day: “2d July, noon. We have just come out of the fight.”

8.      Captain F. E. Marble, commanding Companies B and G, in his diary wrote: “July 2d, 12 o’clock m. Just on my left the sharpshooters, with the Third Maine, are advancing in line of skirmishers…”

Buchanan concluded: These extracts simply show that sometime between 7:30 a.m. or early morn, whenever that was, and 12 m, July 2, 1863 Colonel Berdan…ordered a retreat of his small force…
Buchanan then proceeded to add the following information:

1.      “Rebel accounts state that this reconnoisance [sic] was made about 9 a.m.

2.      “My own recollection of the time and detail with this attack of ours was made is not satisfactory even to myself, though there is no doubt but that it was sometime during the morning of July 2, 1863.”

3.      “We were here sometime in the forenoon, and the exact time has no more to do with our gallantry and service on that occasion than the spots on the sun.”

While it is evident that Buchanan did not agree with the time as stated by Birney, Berdan, Garrett, and Marble, he, apparently decided not to create brouhaha over it. The monument said the four companies engaged the Confederates in the woods “about 12 M.”

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Walking a Civil War Battlefield

The hardest part of any battlefield is walking the approach going into the engagement. From a tactical level, it requires examining the ground and interpreting it the way a brigade, regimental of company commander might have at the time of the battle. Antietam, because of its non-commercial, pristine fields is one of the best to conduct such a tour, particularly since the National Park Service has put so many excellent walking trails upon it.
            This post is about interpreting a battle through the eyes of the participants and because of the heavy photo content, it will probably take s few entries to complete it.  I have chosen to Union attack south through the Cornfield, which claimed some 8,000 casualties between the two armies within about 2.5 hours. It will start in the North Woods, south of the Joseph Poffenberger house to the southern edge of the Cornfield.
The Setting: September 17, 1862
1.      The Union I Corps will start its march south with its right (west) flank on the Hagerstown Pike and Its left (east) on the Poffenberger farm lane at daylight 5:45 a.m. under artillery fire from S.D. Lee’s Battalion on the Dunker Church Plateau (Visitor Center) and some Confederate artillery to the southwest on Nicodemus (Hauser) Ridge.
2.      On a map, the approach looks easy., and it would have been, except for the following factors:
a.       Ground fog – having rained the night before a heavy ground fog, with bright sunlight up above, blanketed all of the hollows in an eerie haze, which seemingly evaporated as the lines marched through it.
According to OCOKA, this was concealment but in an era without GPS and infrared, it also meant that if the Confederates could not see the Federal lines, the Union troops in the hollows could not see the men to their front or flanks in their own line.
b.      The land undulates terribly. Deep hollows flanked the Union center, which was on high ground.
c.       Woods – The Union line passed through the North Woods, an open woodlot without underbrush, which allowed the easy passage of lines but also subjected the line to collateral damage from incoming artillery rounds.
The following photographs show the center, left and right of the I Corps line in the North Woods.

3.      As they moved south from the North Woods, the Union infantry on the center and the left of the line entered a massive plowed field, which stretched, from the Hagerstown Pike to Poffenberger’s lane. The plowed ground ended at the crest of the ridge shown below. Throughout the entire advance, Confederate artillerists in the field east of the West Woods, on the Dunker Church Plateau, and from Houser’s Ridge, west of the West Woods fired into the formation, and the ones which followed, from the south and the west. The Union infantry continually marched in and out of the ground fog as they descended into hollows and reappeared on the ridges across their front.

4.      Upon reaching the crest of the ridge seen above, the Federal infantry came into full view of the Cornfield and the Confederate gunners to the south.
5.      The corn at the time was between five to seven feet tall.
a.       The farmers planted the rows two feet apart in every direction. Picture a checkerboard. The intersection of the lines marked where they would have planted a seed from which one to two stands would grow.
b.      The men remember it being an excellent field with bright green leaves, unlike so many of the unharvested cornfields in the vicinity.
c.       The farmers planted melons and gourds in between the rows.
d.      Planted in that style, the men could pass between the rows, the major obstacle being ground hog holes, rock ledges, and melons and gourds.

6.      Notice how the ground south of the crest drops. This was a mow grass field.
a.       Between about 6:15 a.m. and 8:40 a.m., the field would change hands four times.
b.      During that time the small arms fire, the incoming artillery, and the constant movement of troops leveled the corn as if it had been harvested.
c.       The first line entering the field would probably have destroyed the fence on the northern edge of the field, though no one specifically mentioned doing so.
d.      Troops generally removed obstacles impeding the line of approach. It was safer and easier to destroy a Virginia Rail fence than to climb over it.
7.      The Cornfield, not being level, covered in a sulfuric, low hanging cloud, and blanketed in fog (until around 7:30 a.m.), made command control nearly impossible.
a.       The high humidity kept the smoke from the small arms and artillery fire low to the ground.
b.      A virtually cloudless day, with hardly any breeze, the smoke settled thickly in the low ground.
c.       That reduced visibility to a matter of feet and yards for the larger part of the action once the first shots echoed across the field.

8.      The smoke and undulating terrain severely restricted Fields of Fire in the Cornfield.
a.       Lines ended up shooting at shadows and muzzle flashes at point-blank range, which explains why regiments were knocked down in formation.
b.      The geographical and atmospheric conditions on the field nullified Observation and destroyed command control on anything larger than a company or a squad.
9.      Concealment resulting from the above-mentioned factors led to the chaos and the confusion on the field.
10.  Cover, because of the rolling, ground did not exist.
11.  The terrain varied from GO to Slow Go but did not affect the Federal approach into the corn.
12.  Key Terrain – The I Corps did not attempt to go after the guns on Hauser Ridge. They did not reach the Confederate guns on the Dunker Church Plateau or in front of the West Woods.
13.  There was only one Avenue of Approach for either side – head on - because the narrow fronts from the northern or southern approaches left them no other options.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Using Current Military Aspects of Terrain to Interpret a Civil War Battlefield

On Saturday, January 25, I attended an in-service conducted by Jim Rosebrock (Antietam Guide Service) about interpreting a battlefield the way the military does today. I found it enlightening and very practical and believe I need to share it with others. Very often, when visitors come to Antietam, they do so with a vague idea of what happened there. They see the excellent video. They take the self-guided tour, visit the bookstore, and often hire a guide to take them on a 2.5-hour tour of the field. 

While visiting the undulating Cornfield, the Bloody Lane and the iconic Burnside Bridge they often ask “Why?” Why did the men fight in shoulder-to-shoulder battle lines? Why did they get so close to each other before opening fire? Why would they attack over such open ground? Why did they stand up to fight, rather than lie down?

To understand the “why,” a person has to know the “how.” That is where Jim’s presentation comes in. The military acronym for interpreting a field is OCOKA: Observation and Fields of Fire, Cover and Concealment, Obstacles, Key Terrain, and Avenues of Approach.

1.      Observation
a.       What can you see from where you are standing?
b.      Are there hills, woods obstructing your view?
c.       Is there smoke or ground fog blanketing the area?
d.      Is it raining, snowing, or, worse yet, lightning and torrential rain?
e.       Are you on the best ground from which to observe the field?
f.       Is there a town blocking the line of sight?

2.      Fields of Fire
a.       Where do you place your artillery to be most effective?
b.      How close do you have to get to see the enemy?
c.       How does the terrain affect your placement of troops?
d.      How do you establish your line to get the clearest line of fire?

3.      Cover
a.       What landscape features and or manmade structured will provide your soldiers from incoming fire?
b.      Stonewalls, rock ledges, wooden fences, and buildings along with depressions in the ground can protect troops from direct fire but not necessarily from plunging fire like shell and case shot bursts.
                                                                 i.      Sunken roads and depressions are subject to enfilade, defilade, and flank fire
                                                               ii.      Stonewalls can produce collateral damage from direct hits from artillery projectiles and incoming small arms fire.
                                                             iii.      Rail and board fences are subject to splintering and do not provide solid cover from incoming fire.
c.       Cover is preferable to being out in the open. Proper use of it might not eliminate casualties but can perhaps reduce the number of them.

4.      Concealment
a.       Concealment means that the troops are protected from observation and not necessarily from fire, though cover and concealment may occur at the same time.
b.      Troops use concealment to mask their movement upon an enemy position.
                                                                 i.      Woods, creek beds, swales, ravines, and sunken roads may remove troops from enemy observation.

5.      Obstacles
a.       What on the field can impede your approach onto the field and how are they classified?
                                                                 i.      Go – dry ground, not a lot of man-made obstacles, concealed approaches, anything that facilitates rapid, hidden movement.
                                                               ii.      Slow Go – hills, fences, overgrown woodlots, bad roads, plowed fields, ground hog holes (Antietam), streams, creeks, fog, low visibility, snow, rain, all of which reduce quick deployment.
                                                             iii.      No Go – torrential rain, blizzard conditions, mud, swamps, deep water, cliffs can bring any advance to an abrupt halt.

6.      Key Terrain –
a.       Elevations, which can be used for observation.
b.      Choke points which make it difficult for the enemy to escape.
c.       Any location, which, if occupied and held, will effectively guarantee the success of the mission.

7.      Avenues of Approach
a.       Terrain, which will facilitate rapid and successful approaches to the objective.

When visiting a battlefield apply OCOKA to the ground around you. It might explain, in part, how the battle was fought.