Monday, November 23, 2015

Center of Military History, Here I Come

Greetings, and Happy Thanksgiving everyone -- I hope you all have a chance to relax, gorge yourself on some turkey, and do some light reading over the next few days (may I suggest catching up on my Operations North of the James series? I'd certainly be thankful if you do!)

In any case, while I usually keep personal stuff off of this page, I have an announcement that directly applies to the mission of Freedom by the Sword and will certainly open up more opportunities for some unique posts!

Next Monday I will start a new job with the U.S. Army Center of Military History as part of a team working on the future National Museum of the U.S. Army.

Renderings of future National Museum of the US Army
Needless to say, I'm very excited and honored to play a small role in the creation of what looks to be a world-class museum!

And while we're on the subject of the Center, I would be remiss to not congratulate Dr. Richard W. Stewart on his retirement as Chief Historian. Dr. Stewart took the time out of his busy schedule to meet with little old me and give me some career advice back in 2014, which says a lot about the type of person he is. Here's to a productive and enjoyable retirement!

Keep your eyes peeled for more on the First Battle of Deep Bottom later this week.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 27, 1864

The First Battle of Deep Bottom– also occasionally called the Battle of Darbytown, Strawberry Plains, Tilghman’s Gate, New Market Road ,Gravel Hill, and even Malvern Hill (the latter causing a great deal of confusion) – was part of Grant’s Third Offensive of the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign, which culminated in the infamous mine attack known as the Crater. It lasted from July 27-29, 1864.

In addition to what would become the Battle of the Crater, Grant also sent a force to the north side of the James River via the Deep Bottom bridgehead. Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, along with two divisions of Maj. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan’s cavalry and one division of Brig. Gen. August Kautz’s Army of the James cavalry was tasked with crossing the James River at Deep Bottom and menacing the Confederate capital.

The cavalry’s mission was to ride hard and fast to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad as far north as the South Anna River, then turn back towards Richmond and attempt to capture the city in a joint effort with Hancock’s infantry. If everything went according to plan, Richmond would fall and Grant could call off the mine attack.

Thus, over the night of July 26-27, the II Corps marched from Petersburg, crossed the James River, and advanced east of the Deep Bottom bridgehead. Hancock wasted little time in attempting to locate the enemy and begin the grand offensive that would open the way for Sheridan to commence his raid. In the pre-dawn darkness of July 27th the II Corps spread out into an open area called Strawberry Plains.

Map by Steve Stanely
Just north of the Union expeditionary force at a place called Tilghman’s Gate were three of Maj. Gen. Joseph Kershaw’s Confederate brigades, temporarily under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin Grubb Humphreys. In the middle of this line of infantry were four 20 lb. Parrott Rifles of Capt. Archibald Graham’s 1st Rockbridge Artillery battery. In supporting distance were the 7th South Carolina Cavalry, 24th Virginia Cavalry, and the Hampton Legion, all under the command of the “Bald Eagle,” Brig. Gen. Martin Gary.

Tilghman’s Gate stood right in Hancock’s path, and the corps commander wasted little time in sending out a skirmish line to take the position. The assault would be supported by field artillery under the command of Maj. John G. Hazard and the gunboat USS Mendota, which was anchored at Deep Bottom.

On the skirmish line, a see-saw battle developed, with troops under Regis de Trobriand pushing forward and then falling back under an intense volume of Confederate fire. The Yankees were eventually able to mount a concerted effort and angle their attack towards the middle of the line, where Graham’s Parrott Rifles continued to blast away.

When Humphreys’s men observed the bluecoats zeroing in on Graham’s guns, they immediately moved forward to meet them. Humphreys had also seen the threat and called for the artillery horses in case the cannon needed to be withdrawn in a hurry. He was met with bad news – the horses had been sent to the rear. Within minutes more bad news arrived – a courier from Gary’s brigade informed him that he was flanked. Desperate, Humphreys sent the courier back to Gary with orders to come to his support and attack immediately.

The situation was rapidly deteriorating.

In order to fire more effectively, Graham’s Battery moved its guns into the New Market Road and pointed them towards the advancing Federals, now only fifty yards away. Once in the road, the battery could only bring two guns to bear on the Yankee menaces, but the experienced gunners fired several rounds of canister that caused the Union skirmishers to balk.

Seeing the plight of Graham’s guns, Humphreys attempted to shift his right wing to come to their assistance, but in doing so he created a fifty-yard gap in the Confederate line. This was almost directly across from where De Trobriand’s skirmish line continued its halting advance.

At this point, future Commanding General of the U.S. Army Nelson A. Miles rode up to the front of the skirmish line and cried out, “Men, let a general lead you.” The men surged forward, and the Rebel infantry soon gave way. In the fog of battle, the word to retreat did not filter down to the gunners of Graham’s Battery, who were left to fight on their own. Once they realized the tenuous position they were in, Graham’s artillerists fled for the rear. The Federals were ecstatic when they captured all four of Graham’s Parrott rifles, along with their caissons and ammunition chests.
"The Bald Eagle" - Gen. Martin Gary

They did not have much time to celebrate, however, because Gary’s brigade arrived on the scene in response to Humphreys’s earlier order to come to his assistance. Gary did not waste any time making a reconnaissance – he threw caution to the wind and attacked.

The Bald Eagle was able to buy Humphreys’s retreating soldiers enough time to get to safety and begin to form a new line, but he was quickly swallowed up by the oncoming Federals. The 24th Virginia Cavalry was the first to break and as the rest of the brigade looked for a path to safety Gary rode up and ordered the 7th South Carolina Cavalry to charge down the road and retake the line. No one took this order seriously and one Gary’s aides recalled how he “took out his pistols and threatened to shoot us if we did not move on. He ranted and fumed, but the men were dogged and remained firm.” Within minutes, the graycoats were in full retreat.

Thus ended the fighting at Tilghman’s Gate.

Back at the Deep Bottom bridgehead, Sheridan and Hancock received updates about the progress of the attack. One of Grant’s aides was visiting with the two celebrity generals and was astonished that they both “seemed to think…the thing was a failure.”

The rest of the day was frittered away with maneuvering, while the Confederate high command planned an attack that would drive the hated enemy away from Deep Bottom once and for all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Establishing the Deep Bottom Bridgehead

Part two in a series.

In my previous post I outlined the important series of actions fought north of the James River during the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign from July – October 1864. This post will explore the means by which Federal forces participated in these battles – the Deep Bottom bridgehead. The name “Deep Bottom” refers to an area on the James River 11 miles southeast of Richmond located at a horseshoe-shaped bend in the river known as Jones’ Neck. This area remained relatively quiet throughout the war, but all of that changed once the first series of Union assaults on the Petersburg defenses failed.

Determined to avoid a prolonged siege, Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant boarded a ship with Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler of the Army of the James on June 20, 1864 to seek out a location to open up simultaneous operations against Richmond.

Grant determined that Deep Bottom was the most suitable location. Since it was convenient to the Bermuda Hundred Peninsula, where Butler’s army was currently operating, Deep Bottom was the perfect place to “divide the attention of the enemy’s troops, and to confuse them as to whether to expect an attack upon Richmond or Petersburg,” according to Grant’s aide Horace Porter.

Grant ordered Butler to send a brigade of 2,000 men “to seize, hold, and fortify” Deep Bottom and have the army’s engineers construct a pontoon bridge. Brig. Gen. Robert S. Foster of the X Corps was chosen to lead this small expedition. At 5:00 p.m. on June 20th, Foster’s command marched three miles through intense heat and dust to Jones’ Neck, where the pontoons were assembled and waiting.

The expedition was fraught with danger: Confederate pickets were only three hundred yards away and, once on the north side of the river, the wooded bluffs would have to be scaled and a perimeter established before any work could commence.

Fosters headquarters at Deep Bottom. LOC
Still, by 11:00 p.m., all of Foster’s men were on the far side of the river and by the early morning hours of June 21st the bridgehead was in place and expanding. At 1:15 a.m., Foster proudly reported back to headquarters, “I have established my picket-line without resistance. My intrenching and slashing parties are at work.”

Word of the Yankee incursion came to Lee’s headquarters early on the morning of June 21st from his eldest son, Brig. Gen. George Washington Custis Lee. When the size of the force was determined, Richard S. Ewell, newly appointed commander of the Department of Richmond, appealed to Old Marse Robert for “an increase of force on this side of the river.”

Lee dispatched Henry Heth’s Third Corps division to the north side of the James on June 22nd to assuage Ewell’s fears. The front would remain static for over a month while the two main armies focused on Petersburg.

But Robert E. Lee was none too pleased about the irksome presence of the Yankee troops, telling Ewell, “I do not like the continuance of the enemy on the north side of the James River and the maintenance of the pontoon bridge at Deep Bottom.” On July 23, 1864 Lee reached a breaking point and decided to send Maj. Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s entire division across the river to destroy the pesky bridgehead once and for all.

Giving up that many troops from the Petersburg front was extremely stressful for Lee, and the harried commander wrote to his son on the 24th to unload his secret worries:
I sent yesterday Genl. Kershaw’s division to Chaffin’s, which I can ill spare & which I fear I shall be obliged soon to recall…I directed Genl Kershaw to take command of the brigades under Conner, examine the enemy’s position at Deep Bottom, & see what could be done. I have not heard from him yet…Where are we to get sufficient troops to oppose Grant?
Kershaw wasted no time taking up the offensive. On July 26th his men launched an attack against Foster’s troops, shouting “Go home you red devils!” to a regiment still brave enough to wear Zouave uniforms at this point in the war. The attack successfully dislodged Foster’s men from their advanced positions, but they clung tenaciously to the Deep Bottom bridgehead.

As the evening fighting tapered off, the Confederates were blissfully ignorant of the fact that over 25,000 Union soldiers were marching their way at that very moment.

The stage was set for the First Battle of Deep Bottom.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Operations North of the James River: June - October 1864

Part One in a Series.

What if I was to tell you that a series of desperate battles was fought on the footsteps of the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia? 

You’d most likely think that I was referring to the Seven Days Battles of 1862, right?


Skip forward two years past the famed debut of Robert E. Lee as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia and you will encounter a complex series of battles and skirmishes fought within an hour’s march of the very nerve center of the Confederate nation.

These lesser known battles saw, among other things:
  • Approximately 15,000 combined casualties
  • Four general officers killed or mortally wounded
  • The first twelve Medals of Honor issued to African American infantrymen in U.S. history
  • Old Marse Robert’s final offensive actions before the last three weeks of the war in Virginia

But Richmond was a hard road to travel, as the song went, and even though the Union war machine would hurl entire armies at the city’s gates in 1864, the despised bastion would not fall until that fateful April day in 1865.
Henry Hardenbergh wins the MOH at 2nd Deep Bottom. 

This series of battles would be fought east of Richmond and north of the James River and would center around the road networks and fortifications that ringed the eastern approaches to the city. The names associated with these battles remain largely forgotten – places like Tilghman’s Gate, Gravel Hill, Strawberry Plains, and Fussell’s Mill. Thanks to the efforts of a growing group of Civil War scholars, other names like Deep Bottom, Fort Harrison, New Market Heights, and Darbytown Road are becoming more familiar.

While the names of many of these battles are confused and used interchangeably in the official records, the litany of major actions north of the James breaks down as follows:
  • The First Battle of Deep Bottom: July 26-29, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Deep Bottom: August 14-20, 1864
  • The Battle of Chaffin’s Farm: September 29-30, 1864
  • The First Battle of Darbytown Road: October 7, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Darbytown Road: October 13, 1864
  • The Second Battle of Fair Oaks: October 27-28, 1864
In an upcoming series of posts, I plan to extract a few noteworthy samplings from each of the abovementioned clashes rather than attempt a detailed explanation of each individual fight. We will begin with the events that led to the establishment of the Deep Bottom bridgehead in late June of 1864 and then spend some time with the first battle that bore its name in late July. We will survey each of the two major days of fighting and then look at some of the more notable instances of heroism, including Sgt. Adam Ballenger, who singlehandedly captured a Federal cannon and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for doing so.

For the Second Battle of Deep Bottom we will look at a dark day for the officer corps of the Army of Northern Virginia: August 16, 1864. That day would see the deaths of two generals – John R. Chambliss, Jr., a brigade commander in J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry, and the flamboyant Victor Jean Baptiste Girardey who had made a name for himself at the Battle of the Crater. We will also examine the Battle of Fussell’s Mill, which saw the heaviest sustained fighting of the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

We will then shift our gaze to the experience of two white Union officers who led African American soldiers during the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Lt. John McMurray of the 6th USCT left a gripping account his regiment’s fateful charge against New Market Heights Lt. John Viers of the 5th USCT dodged death at the Battle of New Market Heights on the morning of September 29, 1864 only to be captured later in the day during the horrific assault on Fort Gilmer. As we will see, white USCT officers did not always have the easiest time when they fell into the hands of the Rebel army.

Next we will look at the First Battle of Darbytown Road and the death of another Confederate general, John Gregg. This Alabamian went from serving in the Provisional Confederate Congress to fighting in the Western Theater where, through a strange series of events, he found himself placed in command of one of the most famed fighting units of the entire war – Hood’s Texas Brigade.

The concluding post will pick up the story of the U.S. Colored Troops in late October 1864, when a controversy broke out over the use of black prisoners to construct new Confederate fortifications and the massacre of black troops who had surrendered during the fighting on October 27th.

Along the way I will stop to give character portraits of both individuals and units that saw action in this forgotten sector.

As we will see, there is much fresh and exciting material to unpack from the fighting on this overlooked front of the American Civil War.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Return to Deep Bottom

Greetings! My apologies for falling off the face of the planet for a while, but my previous post elicited such deranged hatred from some of the self-appointed gatekeepers of ACW blogging that I thought it best to lay low for a while.

Mike Andrus describing the collapse of Girardey's line.
In any case, I had the pleasure of helping lead a tour of the Fussell’s Mill battlefield for the Richmond Battlefields Association over the weekend, which has drawn my attention back to where it hasn’t been for these few quiet months – the north side of the James River.

I had the great honor of teaming up with Mike Andrus (the man who first showed me the ropes of giving a good battlefield tour over 15 years ago) to take a hardy band of enthusiasts over ground that was recently preserved by the RBA. (And if you’re not a member of the RBA, please consider supporting them – for a small organization, they have scored some incredible preservation successes over the last decade.)

This ground was central to the August 16, 1864 battle at Fussell’s Mill, which saw the heaviest fighting of the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

The new acquisition helps preserve a portion of Confederate general Victor Girardey’s line and most likely includes the location of where Girardey was killed attempting to rally his retreating troops. The tour also visited the monument to Col. William C. Oates of Little Round Top fame, who received his 7th wound of the war leading the 48th Alabama into battle. 

Col. William C. Oates
In any case, it was wonderful to be back home, and with that in mind I thought I would officially announce that I plan on resurrecting a series that I began on the Emerging Civil War blog earlier in the year that will take an in-depth look at the forgotten actions that took place North of the James from late June to late October of 1864. I will repost some of the old ECW posts I wrote and supplement them with new information and some recent finds, so stay tuned!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Ain’t I a Human? – Dehumanization, Then & Now

In my previous post, I lamented the troubling legacies of the American Civil War that have been cropping up in recent headlines. In the intervening weeks since I wrote that post, a new scandal has broken into the headlines – a story which contains several parallels to the dehumanizing practice of slavery in the antebellum South and which originates from the same ideological cesspool…and yet no one in the Civil War community has uttered a word about it that I am aware of.

To Be Sold

The painting shown below was the subject of a recent exhibition at the Library of Virginia.

Slaves Waiting for Sale by Eyre Crowe (1861)
Entitled “Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia” the work depicts a slave auction on the eve of the American Civil War. It shows nine enslaved men and women – including three children – pensively awaiting the moment they will be put on an auction block for sale.

The viewer’s stomach churns in revulsion at the thought of this moment – that these people were dressed up only for exhibition, hoping that the fancy clothing might fetch a better price…that the children clutched tightly by their mothers might be sold to a different bidder, wrenching the family apart for years to come…maybe even forever.

Much of the injustice associated with buying and selling human beings is captured in this paining, and historians have done a fine job over the past half century to bring this tragic era of human history to light and to show that slavery was in no wise a benign institution – it was violence perpetrated against the human soul.


What cries out as so very wrong about the practice of slavery is, in part, its degradation and dehumanization of our fellow human beings. In his magisterial The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation, David Brion Davis defines dehumanization as, “the eradication not of human identity but of those elements of humanity that evoke respect and empathy and convey a sense of dignity” (p.17).

Consider, then, the recent scandal concerning allegations that abortion provider Planned Parenthood has been harvesting body parts taken from aborted babies and selling them to medical research companies for profit. There has been quite a smoke screen attempting to cover the craven nature of what the recent undercover videos that exposed this illicit trade truly shows.

But I challenge you to reflect upon this snippet taken from one of the latest videos, in which Dr. Savita Ginde and her staff are picking through the severed pieces of a child. At one point a medical assistant cracks the child’s skull while Dr. Ginde laughs and says, “It’s a baby.” Shortly thereafter another assistant yells “It’s a boy!” when examining the eviscerated baby’s lower body.

This is the dehumanization of slavery on steroids. The aforementioned footage and mounds of other evidence (and plain common sense) shows that the abortion pushers at Planned Parenthood agree that they are killing what is clearly identifiable as human (otherwise they wouldn’t be able to profit from selling the body parts.) They simply strip the unborn child of any dignity or sense of worth – “life unworthy of life” as an ideological bedfellow of theirs would have put it – and rake in the profits, just like the slavers of old.

Calling All Historians

So where is the outcry from my colleagues?

As Prof. Jacquelyn Hall of UNC Chapel Hill said, “As a matter of civic duty and professional survival historians must unapologetically embrace opportunities to put the past in open dialogue with the pressing needs of the present.” 

Over the weekend Kevin Levin rightly praised John Hennessey for “fully embrac[ing] his responsibility to push park visitors to think about the tough questions related to how we think about and how we remember our Civil War. In a follow-up, Levin wrote “It’s an opportune moment for public historians, who focus on the Civil War Era and the history of race relations. Folks who have never thought about the American Civil War are giving it a good deal of thought.” 

And yet when it comes to this horrific scandal, mum’s the word.

It staggers me to see the amount of ink spilled over the controversy surrounding the Confederate battle flag and the unbridled zeal to take down monuments dedicated to those who fought to establish a slaveholding republic…with nary a word devoted to an indefensible practice that rivals the great human rights crises of the past.

In 1839, Theodore Dwight Weld wrote that the slaveholder did “not contemplate slaves as human beings, consequently [he] does not treat them as such; and with indifference sees them suffer privations and writhe under blows which, if inflicted upon whites, would fill him with horror and indignation.”

Today, many in our society are unmoved at the prospect of unborn children “suffering privations” and writhing in the womb as they are sliced to bits and sold at market to the highest bidder. Weld’s contemporaries relied upon Phrenology and other pseudoscience to justify their depredations just as Planned Parenthood hides behind junk science and deception to carry out its illegal trade.

The magnitude of this scandal exceeds traditional pro-choice/pro-life squabbles – it cuts right to the core and forces us to search our souls for an answer to the question of what makes us human.

Do we have intrinsic worth, or is some life more worthy of protection than other life – and how do we arbitrate between the two in the latter case?

If there is no absolute value to be placed on every human life, then there’s no logical reason why you can’t slaughter a child in utero and harvest its organs to finance your Lamborghini. 

And there’s no reason why you can’t own another person as well.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

We’ve Got a Long Way to Go: The Confederate Battle Flag, George Takei’s “Uncivil” Rant, & the Legacy of Race in America

Well, if ever anyone needed ammunition to bolster their arguments that the haunting legacies of slavery and the Civil War still impact our nation today, the past few weeks have provided an abundance of troubling evidence.

I, for one, was very troubled over the initial debate over the public display of the Confederate battle flag in the wake of the horrific hate crime in Charleston. To me, it seemed like the “rush to the colors” was not only misguided, but completely wrongheaded – when the bodies of the victims had not been properly memorialized or even buried some acted as if the main takeaway that Americans should be concerned with was whether or not future generations would learn the “real” history of the Confederacy.

Never mind the nine innocent victims who had been slaughtered and the hateful ideology that motivated the Confederate flag-waving killer.

Equally troubling were the recent remarks made by actor George Takei following the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.
Oh my, indeed.

Takei, who has been a champion for gay rights and marriage equality for many years, was not content to celebrate this historic ruling. Instead, he launched into a diatribe against Justice Clarence Thomas’s dissenting opinion that was laced with racist imagery that should have no place in any civil discussion.

What Thomas said that got Takei so fired up was, in part:
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate…Human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved…The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
Reacting to that, Takei said of Justice Thomas:
He is a clown in blackface sitting on the Supreme Court. He gets me that angry. He doesn't belong there. And for him to say, slaves have dignity. I mean, doesn't he know that slaves were in chains? That they were whipped on the back. If he saw the movie 12 Years a Slave, you know, they were raped. And he says they had dignity as slaves…I mean, this man does not belong on the Supreme Court. He is an embarrassment. He is a disgrace to America.  
Takei’s reference to blackface harkens back to a disgusting theatrical tradition that propagated racist images and attitudes. Minstrel shows that employed blackface portrayed African Americans as inferior caricatures and blackface clowns were a popular means of reinforcing the “otherness” of black Americans.

Takei has since taken to Facebook to apologize for using this blatantly racist imagery (which he called "uncivil") and suggested that he “referred to [Justice Thomas] as a ‘clown in blackface’ to suggest that he had abdicated and abandoned his heritage.” It is interesting to note that most follow-up comments on his Facebook apology support what he originally said and claimed he had nothing to apologize for.

What Takei did not walk back in his apology were his remarks about slaves not having dignity. One can only give him the benefit of the doubt and hope that he was unartfully stating that slavery stripped dignity from human beings. If humans do not have inherent dignity, then there is no moral law against enslaving them in the first place.

But this, of course, is clearly not what Justice Thomas was suggesting. His line of reasoning was the main underpinning of the abolition movement while Takei alluded to the language and customs used by the defenders of the Slavocracy.

Takei’s language is just as offensive as the proud display of the Confederate flag after the Charleston shooting. While I don’t think that he or the defenders of the Confederate flag are virulent racists, I do think that both display a disturbing lack of understanding and appreciation for the real history of slavery, race, and the legacy of the American Civil War.

We’ve got a long way to go.