Thursday, December 6, 2018

Milton Holland and H.R.1010


Greetings and salutations everyone! My apologies for another extended break from blogging. While my posts have grown few and far between, my passion for the topic of the American Civil War has not waned, I can assure you.

Need proof?

Okay.

Today I received an email that “got my dander up,” to use a 19th century idiom. How this topic eluded me for so long escapes me, but once it was brought to my attention I knew I had to get involved post haste.

The topic in question is an ongoing effort to promote New Market Heights Medal of Honor recipient Milton M. Holland to the rank of Captain, as was the wish of his commanding general, Benjamin F. Butler. Holland, along with other heroes of the September 29, 1864 action at New Market Heights, were denied battlefield promotions due not to any lack of heroism or devotion to duty, but to the color of their skin.

Holland, who was born a slave in Texas and whose father was also his master, eventually found freedom and moved to Ohio in time for the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1863 he began actively assisting with the recruitment of an all African American unit initially known as the 127th Ohio Volunteer Infantry (Colored), later known as the 5th US Colored Infantry. In one of his recruitment speeches he said:
There is a bright day coming for the colored man, and he must sacrifice home comforts, and his blood if necessary, to speed the coming of that glorious day.
To Holland, these were not empty words – he eventually rose to the rank of First Sergeant in the 5th USCI and, during the Battle of New Market Heights, he “took command of Company C, after all the officers had been killed or wounded, and gallantly led it,” according to his Medal of Honor citation.
It was this action that inspired Ben Butler to promote Holland to Captain, a promotion that was nixed due to the uncomfortable notion of a having a black man as an officer.

Now, politicians from Texas and Ohio are renewing their effort to have the President of the United States “provide for the posthumous commission as a captain in the regular Army of Milton Holland, who, while sergeant major of the 5th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry, was awarded the Medal of Honor for gallantry during the Civil War.”

This language comes from H.R. 1010 of the 114th Congress, a bipartisan bill authored by Rep. Steve Stivers (R) of Ohio and Rep. Al Green (D) of Texas. This legislation was introduced in 2015, but was also attempted in 2013 (H. R. 3364) along with a letter to then-President Obama asking him to promote Holland to captain.

President Obama’s office deferred the matter to the Department of the Army, and the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Military Personnel.

More recently, Rep. Stivers sent another letter to President Trump, who has once again referred the matter to the Department of the Army. While Rep. Stivers has been able to have the Army confirm the veracity of Holland’s initial promotion, he was also told that the “information threshold” has not been met to confirm that Holland does indeed deserve the promotion, according to a November 30th article in the The Athens Messenger.

I find this last claim to be ludicrous, as Holland’s story is well-documented (see: https://sablearm.blogspot.com/2011/11/profile-in-courage-milton-m-holland.html) and his Medal of Honor should go a long way towards establishing the merits of his case.

Stivers told the Messenger, “I would encourage anyone that has documentation related to Milton Holland to reach out to my office. Any information would help as we continue to build a case.”

Today I received an email requesting that I link up with Rep. Stivers’ office and other Civil War historians that are working to correct this matter and I unhesitatingly accepted.

Stay tuned for updates and further information as this story unfolds!

Monday, June 4, 2018

At Long Last, The Petersburg Campaign is Getting Its Due

This is slightly depressing to admit, but it was twenty years ago this month that I started my first job in public history. A faintly emaciated college freshman, my initial foray into educating the wider public about the American Civil War was launched at Stop 3 of Petersburg National Battlefield, better known as the “Union camp” because I was part of a group of about ten other seasonal Park Rangers that portrayed Federal soldiers.


Stop 3 as it appears today.
It was a wonderful summer filled with teenaged antics, burning more black powder than most re-enactors fire in their entire lifetimes, and chatting with hundreds of visitors about the Petersburg Campaign.

One thing that stood out to me as a 19 year old know-it-all was the paucity of good books and public awareness about the campaign that was much more commonly referred to as the “Siege of Petersburg” than the more popular (and accurate) “Richmond-Petersburg Campaign” used today. I remember devouring Andy Trudeau’s The Last Citadel and a few books by Chris Calkins (who worked at the park at that time), but that was about it.


It seemed that the standard narrative about the campaign two decades ago went something like this:

The campaign started in June of 1864, when Satan incarnate (Benjamin Butler) brought his ravenous hordes to violate the sacred soil of Virginia’s Cockade City. God smote his blue clads in their unrighteous attempt and something, something, something…THE CRATER! The Horrid Pit! Now the smelly Yankees turned to some witless coal miners to blow up the flower of Southron youth and then use (gasp!) “Negro” troops in the attack (which, of course, failed.) Something something something, a vague reference to how the trenches at Petersburg foreshadowed the stalemate of World War One and BAM! Appomattox, the end.
OK, I may have over-exaggerated a smidge, but you get the idea – there wasn’t a whole lot on the campaign and not too many people seemed to think that was much of a problem.

Things slowly began to shift as we neared the sesquicentennial, especially in 2009 when Earl J. Hess published In the Trenches at Petersburg. Once the commemoration got underway, the floodgates opened with new studies such as Sean Chick’s The Battle of Petersburg, June 15-18, 1864, Hampton Newsome’s Richmond Must Fall, and my books on New Market Heights and Deep Bottom. Additionally, updates of older works like John Horn’s The Siege of Petersburg: The Battles for the Weldon Railroad, August 1864 and Dick Sommers’ magisterial (and yes, I HAVE to use the word “magisterial” every time I refer to this book) Richmond Redeemed: The Siege at Petersburg.

On the heels of the Sesquicentennial we saw the founding of the Petersburg Battlefields Foundation, whose stated mission is to “lead a regional initiative to preserve, interpret, and promote the diverse cultural, natural, and historic resources of the Petersburg Campaign of the Civil War” in 2016.

Lastly, I’ve been devouring two excellent new works on the campaign, Gordon Rhea’s On to Petersburg: Grant and Lee, June 4-15, 1864 and A Campaign of Giants - The Battle for Petersburg; Volume 1: From the Crossing of the James to the Crater, by A. Wilson Greene. 

As my pal Hampton Newsome recently pointed out on his blog, there are several more books slated for release soon that have a direct tie-in with the campaign. As Edward Alexander recently stated, “we can finally put to bed the long-held excuse that a lack of material is preventing (potential) visitors from taking interest in the campaign.”

In closing, I should also not how Hampton Newsome lamented the fact that February 5-7, 1865 fighting at Hatcher’s Run during the Eighth Offensive (seventh if you follow Hess’ model) lacks a book-length treatment.

Well fear no more, gentle readers, as I am in the research phase of such a book. Look to this page for updates as my third book on the campaign progresses!

Yes, it look like the Petersburg Campaign is finally getting its due.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Trump Administration & Camp Nelson

I’d like to draw your attention to an article that was published this morning over at The Guardian regarding the preservation efforts under way at a place that is essential to our understanding of the history of United States Colored Troops.

Image: Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park
Camp Nelson, Kentucky was originally constructed in 1863 as a supply depot for the Federal Army of the Ohio. Shortly after it was built, an influx of newly-freed slaves descended upon the camp and were quickly put to work on construction projects such as building railroads. In October of 1863, many of these ex-slaves began to enlist in the United States Colored Troops. All told, over 10,000 African Americans joined the Union army at Camp Nelson, and the camp quickly became a place of refuge for the families of these newly-minted soldiers. Like all contraband and refugee camps, volunteers from the American Missionary Association and workers with the US Sanitary Commission descended upon the camp to educate and assist the freedmen.

Image: Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park
The site of Camp Nelson is now home to Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park, but now the Trump Administration is looking at turning the site into a national monument. To quote the article:
With monument status… [the park] could also hire a superintendent and employees. “It will give us more recognition and get our story out to more people,” [park archaeologist Stephen McBride] said.
It’s sometimes easy to fall into the trap of equating the size and scale of a park with the importance of what actually happened there. I ran into this all the time when I served as the Site Manager of the Bristoe Station battlefield – the mindset is that if a place doesn’t have all the glitz and glamor of a Gettysburg, then nothing important must have happened there.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

To give a site as important as Camp Nelson the status of a national monument would do much to ensure that future generations are able to explore the rich history associated with this hallowed ground. I’ve been captivated by the story of a site similar to Camp Nelson – Arlington’s Freedman’s Village – for many years now, but that site is long gone, as are many similar sites in the Washington DC area.

The Guardian article concludes with information regarding the administration’s efforts to convey monument status to the home of Civil Rights hero Medgar Evers. While the article also states that some question the motives of the Trump administration for taking these measures, but I’ll leave such speculation to the activist bloggers – as far as I’m concerned, preservation of these critical sites trumps petty politics.

I’ll be sure to keep a tab on these preservation efforts and will update this story as needed over the coming months. 

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Post-Sesquicentennial Homesick Blues

Greetings and salutations to the three of you who still remember that this blog exists! Well, it’s 2018 and three years have passed since any substantive content has been posted on this site…three years since the 150th anniversary commemorations of the American Civil War came to a close.

My sesquicentennial was a madcap whirlwind of activity that saw the publication of two books, researching and leading anniversary tours of Bristoe Station, Yellow Tavern, and (of course) New Market Heights, and the most consistent output of blog posts that Freedom by the Sword has ever enjoyed.

For many in public history, the sesquicentennial was a harsh taskmaster that never relented in its unceasing demand for more never-before-published information, more real-time tours that allowed you to bask in the sacred aura of the individual or unit of your choice on the EXACT ground at the EXACT moment 150 years later (adjusting for daylight savings time, of course), and more special pleading for new and improved “turning points of the war” that set the record straight from those pesky “centennialist” interpretations.

While the commemoration was an undoubted success, I found myself quite tuckered out by the summer of 2015 and ready for a mental break. I was able to keep busy working on the National Museum of the United States Army project, and I refocused my research and writing on the First World War over at my other blog, where I’ve been profiling Virginians who fought in the Great War (including two brothers who were directly related to none other than JEB Stuart.) I contributed an essay to A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign and survived my first experience with peer review with an article I wrote for the International Encyclopedia of the First World War.

I was even crazy enough to try my hand at teaching and spent most of the 2017-2018 school year in the classroom with 160 high school students who were subjected to many extraneous Civil War stories whether they had to do with that day’s lesson or not. 

So what about now? Am I done with the American Civil War?

Not by a long shot.

I know that this blog has been silent for far too long (especially in light of recent events) but I refuse to write salacious click-bait disguised as scholarly commentary. So if I don’t have time to write a post about a recent event related to the Civil War, I just have to let it go.

That said, I am currently working on an overview of Sheridan’s Richmond Raid for Virginia Tech’s Essential Civil War Curriculum. And while I don’t have any book plans for the moment, I’m hoping to revive some earlier ideas I had had for ACW-related books and get some words on paper.


I was recently gratified to see that Will Greene cited my book on the Battle of First Deep Bottom (which, shockingly, did not make the New York Times bestseller list and might not even be in print anymore) over 16 times in his brand-new A Campaign of Giants: The Battle for Petersburg, Volume 1. It’s always nice to be noticed!

Also, I had a great time this past February speaking to the Civil War Round Table of Cobb County about the Battle of New Market Heights. It was nice to be treated to a little southern hospitality and engage with an audience over the age of 15 for a change!


As always, my main interest remains the saga of the United States Colored Troops, especially those who fought in the Richmond-Petersburg Campaign. With the pressure of the sesquicentennial out of the way, I look forward to delving back into primary sources and sharing the results with you!

So stay tuned – more to follow!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Battle of New Market Heights at Five: Looking Back

Greetings, and happy 2017! It’s hard to believe that this blog has been dormant for over a year…


Much has changed since I last posted. I am now heading up the Programs and Education Department for the National Museum of the U.S. Army, a rewarding endeavor that takes up most of my waking hours.


In the wild melee to get this museum ready to go by the proposed opening date of 2019, the five year anniversary of my first book, The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword, came and went without me (or anyone else, for that matter) even noticing.


Today I was pleasantly surprised to happen upon an article in The Atlantic that features the battle and quotes my book, which caused me to pause and briefly take stock of all that has changed since its publication in 2011.


Unless you’re a Doris Kearns Goodwin or a James McPherson it can be easy for an author to fall into the trap of believing that the work that he or she has poured their heart and soul into was a failure because it didn’t capture other people’s imaginations in the same way that it did their own. 

 It wasn’t until today that I realized how much I had fallen into that trap and secretly viewed the book as a failure. With five years under the bridge, however, I think that there is much to be happy about when it comes to both the book and the battle’s standing in Civil War history.


As far as the book is concerned, I have been blessed to receive many positive reviews and praise. From The Journal of Southern History touting that, “This slim volume offers considerable insight regarding the black military experience” in 2012 to a recent volume of Ohio Valley History claiming, “to gain a blow-by-blow account [of New Market Heights]…one should turn to James S. Price’s monograph, The Battle of New Market Heights: Freedom Will Be Theirs by the Sword.” The book was also featured in a National Geographic publication, which is nothing to sneeze at!


Over the past five years the battle itself has also gained prominence. In 2013, Don Troiani produced Three Medals of Honor, a painting that offers a new perspective on what the agonizing moments of September 29, 1864 may have looked like. Also, in 2014 the County of Henrico hosted a re-enactment of the battle and offered a real-time sesquicentennial walking tour that offered unprecedented access to what remains of the battlefield.


These stepping stones and many others bring us to today, when the Battle of New Market Heights is touted in The Atlantic, and if my small book played some part in that, well...I couldn’t be more proud.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

He Had Won for Himself an Honorable Name: The Untimely Death of John Chambliss

Part six in a series.

The Richmond-Petersburg Campaign witnessed many dark days for the Army of Northern Virginia, but one that has received scant attention is August 16, 1864. On that day, Lee’s army lost two brigadier generals. This post will briefly examine the life of Brig. Gen. John R. Chambliss, Jr. and the impact his death had upon events north of the James in 1864.

John R. Chambliss, Jr. was a native of Greensville County, Virginia. He was the son of John R. Chambliss, Sr., a lawyer who would later serve in the First Confederate Congress and would tragically outlive his son by 11 years. The future Confederate general went to West Point and soon became close friends with future Union cavalier David McM. Gregg. He graduated 31st in the Class of 1853, which also included John Bell Hood, Phil Sheridan, and James B. McPherson among others. He resigned after teaching at the cavalry school at Carlisle and was a civilian until he joined the local militia in 1858. When war broke out he was an aide-de-camp to Henry A. Wise and colonel of the 41st Virginia Infantry before transferring to the 13th Virginia Cavalry.
Brig. Gen. John Chambliss

Chambliss conducted himself well in many of the eastern theater’s better known cavalry actions, including important roles at Beverly Ford and East Cavalry Field at Gettysburg. He was promoted to brigade command in December of 1863 after meritorious service at Morton’s Ford and Brandy Station during the Bristoe Campaign. He commanded a brigade of Virginians and Tarheels under Maj. Gen. “Rooney” Lee, a command he had briefly held once before following Lee’s wounding at the June 1863 battle at Brandy Station.

Chambliss’s last ride would take place during the Second Battle of Deep Bottom, fought August 14-20, 1864. Part of Grant’s Fourth Offensive, this Union foray north of the James River involved Hancock’s II Corps again crossing at the Deep Bottom bridgehead, along with Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s X Corps from the Army of the James and a division of cavalry.

On this third day of the campaign, August 16, 1864 (usually referred to as “The Battle of Fussell’s Mill”) the heaviest fighting of the campaign occurred. While a two-pronged infantry assault was launched against the main Confederate line, Nelson Miles’s infantry brigade and cavalry under Chambliss’s old pard David Gregg launched a diversion down the Charles City Road that would set the two old friends on a collision course.
Courtesy: Richmond Battlefields Association
Chambliss’s brigade, on picket duty, was pushed back towards White’s Tavern by this Union attack. David Gregg’s brother, J. Irvin Gregg, was wounded in this initial contact and said to the troopers who charged past him, “Tell the boys to avenge this!”

Avenge it they did.

Chambliss rode with his staff towards the fighting and soon came under fire from elements of the 5th New Hampshire Infantry and 16th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The New York Herald later related, “The rebel general endeavored to rally his troopers, but without avail; for when the head of our charging column was close upon the rear of the flying fugitives he was seen almost alone upon the field where his men had deserted him.”

When the Pennsylvanians called out for Chambliss to surrender, the general spurred his horse to the rear and was promptly fired upon by the Federals. The general was immediately hit in the neck and chest and dropped dead from the saddle. Curious Yankees surrounded the corpse and began cutting of mementos from his uniform until Davis Gregg arrived on the scene. “The general was a small man, neatly dressed having on a fine, white linen shirt with coat, hat and pants to match,” recalled a member of the 5th New Hampshire.

Gregg had the body of his old friend searched. A copy of the New Testament was found with the inscription, “If I am killed in this struggle, will some kind friend deliver this book to my dear wife? J.R.C., Jr., June 8, 1864.”

Also found on his person was a detailed map of the fortifications around Richmond. This map would prove extremely valuable when Grant and Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler were planning the Fifth Offensive that would result in the Battle of Chaffin’s Farm. Butler had photographic copies of the map distributed to his subordinates when they prepared their assaults on New Market Heights and Fort Harrison.
The Chambliss Map
Federal solders placed Chambliss’s body in a wooden coffin and buried him near a place known locally as the Potteries, marking his grave with a wooden headboard. Confederate troops found the grave the next day and had the general’s remains shipped home for burial in the family cemetery.

Robert E. Lee was grieved to learn of the loss of yet another one of his talented young subordinates, writing that “the loss sustained by the cavalry in the fall of General Chambliss will be felt throughout the army, in which, by his courage, energy and skill, he had won for himself an honorable name.”

As we will see in my next post, Chambliss was not the only talented young brigadier to fall during the Second Deep Bottom Campaign.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Valor in Blue and Gray: Timothy O’Connor and Adam Ballenger at First Deep Bottom

Part five in a series.

In my last post we finished off the First Battle of Deep Bottom by examining the final day of major fighting, July 28, 1864. This day saw intense combat that pitted Confederate infantry under Brig. Gen. James Conner against Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg at the Darby Farm.
During that fight, two individuals stood out for heroism above and beyond the call of duty – Federal cavalry trooper Timothy O’Connor and Confederate sergeant Adam Ballenger.

Timothy O’Connor and the Fight for the Lower Field

As we have seen, the fighting at the Darby Farm kicked off when men led by Gen. James Conner from Lane’s Brigade (under Col. Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lt. Col. J.F. Hunt) and Kershaw’s Brigade (under Col. John W. Henagan) left their earthworks at Fussell’s Mill at 10:00 a.m. on the morning of July 28, 1864. Their mission was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck on the James River, where he could be defeated in detail. Unfortunately for the Rebels, there was no reconnaissance conducted to scout the Federal positions. Thus, Conner’s men set forth unaware of a mounted threat moving their way in the form of Union cavalry troopers under Brig. Gen. David Gregg and the always inept Brig. Gen. August V. Kautz.

When Conner’s battle line hit a prominent thumb of trees, it split in half with the 1st and 14th South Carolina of Hunt’s Brigade going with Cowan to the right and the remainder of the brigade splitting off to the left with Henagan. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the thumb of trees, two separate fights quickly developed, which I call the fights for the lower and upper field.
In the lower field, the attacking Confederates were met with stubborn resistance from Federal cavalry which had the decided advantage of repeating carbines. After stalling in the face of superior firepower, the attacking Confederates soon began to give way.

The 18th North Carolina had just begun to retreat when the Regular Brigade of the U.S. Cavalry counterattacked. Lt. Col. John McGill, commanding the 18th, reported that “my Regiment had to fall back under a most galling fire, and I fear that several of my men who are now missing were either wounded or killed as several were to start to fall back and have not been seen since.” Among those he feared missing was Cpl. David M. Barefoot of Company H, who “received the colors and bore them at the front until I ordered the Regiment to retreat.” As it turned out, Barefoot had the worst of an encounter with a young trooper in the 1st U.S. Cavalry named Timothy O’Connor.

O’Connor was originally from County Kerry, Ireland, but settled in Chicago once he came to the United States. When war broke out he initially enlisted in the 23rd Illinois before joining the 1st U.S. Cavalry. By the time of First Deep Bottom, O’Connor was a high private who found himself in the vanguard of the Federal counterattack. Before long, he was looking poor Cpl. Barefoot in the eye and wrestling the regimental colors out of his hands. For this daring action, O’Connor was awarded the Medal of Honor. His citation notes that he was awarded the medal “for extraordinary heroism on 28 July 1864, while serving with Company E, 1st U.S. Cavalry, in action at Malvern, Virginia, for capture of flag of the 18th North Carolina Infantry.”
O'Connor's Memorial at Arlington.

O’Connor was discharged from the army in December of 1865 and returned to Chicago. He died on March 26, 1915, at the age of 72. There is a memorial headstone at Arlington National Cemetery with an incorrect death date, but research indicates that his remains are in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Chicago – which also happens to be the final resting place of Al Capone. However, I was recently contacted by a distant family member who says O’Connor went back to County Kerry after the war and his mortal remains are in an unmarked grave in the land of his birth. This family member further stated that they are attempting to relocate his Medal of Honor.

Adam Ballenger and the Upper Field

While O’Connor and his compatriots were getting the best of the situation in the Lower Field, his compatriots in the other sector of the battlefield were not so lucky initially.

The sheer force of the Confederate attack here caused several regiments of horse soldiers to fall back to better ground. This withdrawal left several 3-inch Ordnance Rifles of Lt. William Dennison’s horse artillery vulnerable. For 22 year old Sgt. Adam W. Ballenger of Company C, 13th South Carolina the alluring site of an exposed enemy gun was too much. The impetuous youngster ran out ahead of the column to take on Dennison’s battery almost singlehandedly.

Ballenger ran up to one cannon that had had several horses killed and jumped on it, causing the driver to run off. Incredibly, Ballenger then “jumped off the piece, cut loose the traces and unfastened the off-horse, which he mounted.” He enlisted help in hauling off the piece, encouraging several men to grab the prolonge and begin leading the prize back to the rear.

Ballenger later in life. Find-A-Grave.com.
Col. Hunt saw all of his transpire and credited the short-lived Confederate success to Ballenger, stating, “I consider our success due in a great measure to the conduct of Sergt. Ballenger.” After the battle, Gen. McGowan summoned Ballenger to his headquarters and promoted him from sergeant to 2nd Lt. on the spot. Ballenger returned to South Carolina after the war and lived until December of 1912. He is buried at Inman Baptist Church Cemetery in Spartanburg County, South Carolina.

While the Confederate Medal of Honor was not created until 1977, Adam Ballenger’s heroism would eventually win him the award in the 1990’s. According to the website of the South Carolina Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, “the Medal of Honor service was held at Sgt. Ballenger’s grave site on September 30, 1995 at the Inman Baptist Church in Inman, SC. Over 200 people attended the service. Over one hundred of them were descendants of Sgt. Ballenger.”

The exploits of these two young heroes reveal that there is still much to be gleaned from examining the clashes north of the James River in 1864.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Collision at the Darby Farm: July 28, 1864

Part four in a series.

In my last post we examined the first large-scale fighting of the First Battle of Deep Bottom – the clash at Tilghman’s Gate on July 27, 1864. When we left Hancock and Sheridan, they were hesitant to follow up the gains they had won when they pushed the Confederates out of their line along the New Market Road. Hancock spent the rest of the morning of the 27th reorienting his corps from facing north to facing west. The cavalry began to push up the Long Bridge Road, encamping near the Darby Farm.

The Darby House
As word of the day’s events trickled back to Lee’s headquarters, it was readily apparent that Kershaw needed to be heavily reinforced. Lee thus decided to send Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s Third Corps division over to help Ewell and Kershaw’s beleaguered forces. Lee looked to First Corps chieftain Lt. Gen. Richard H. Anderson to take overall control of the operation, ordering him to “examine the enemy’s position, endeavor to ascertain his strength, and if practicable drive him away and destroy his bridges.”

When Anderson arrived at Chaffin’s Bluff, he reported that “it was decided to attack the enemy’s right at as early hour as was possible the following morning.” Thus, both sides settled down for the evening planning to go on the offensive the next day.

On the morning of the 28th, Anderson ordered a battle group of four brigades – Lane’s Brigade (under Colonel Robert V. Cowan), McGowan’s Brigade (under Lieutenant Colonel J.F. Hunt), Kershaw’s Brigade (under Colonel John Williford Henagan) and Wofford’s Brigade – to attack. Leading these four brigades into action was Brig. Gen. James Conner. Anderson’s objective in this assault was to turn Hancock’s right and push him back to Curle’s Neck, where he could be defeated in detail.

After leaving the safety of the Confederate earthworks at Fussell’s Mill, Conner’s battle group had to traverse nearly two hundred yards of dense woods before they would enter a cornfield that was split almost completely in twain by a finger of woods jutting out from the opposite tree line. Conner would be put to the test to see if he could keep his three brigades in good order as they advanced through such treacherous terrain.

Map by Steve Stanley
Conner’s boys stepped off at 10:00 a.m. and halfway through the woods part of Hunt’s command and Henagan’s full brigade encountered the forked county road. Despite an outcry from their officers, the men began to pour into the road, causing Hunt’s Brigade to break up. With Conner’s battle group sliced in half by the finger of trees mentioned earlier, two separate fights were about to develop.
The first of these fights developed among the fragment consisting of Cowan and Hunt’s men that had inadvertently maneuvered itself into the field west of the finger of trees. Hunt’s men emerged in the cornfield of the Darby Farm, where Sheridan’s troopers had camped on the evening of the 27th, and discovered that they were facing off against the Union cavalry all by themselves.

Unperturbed, they pushed toward the Federals, loading and firing as they went. In the meantime, Cowan encountered not only a swamp that slowed him down, but also Federal skirmishers. After pushing the pesky horse soldiers back, Cowan’s men pushed out of the woods into the open clearing, where Hunt’s men were already engaged. Seeing that Hunt was out in front all by himself, Cowan passed down the order for his men to advance at the double quick.

Meanwhile, Col. Thomas C. Devin was ordered to file down to Merritt’s left, putting him squarely in position to deal with Cowan’s oncoming troops. When Cowan’s men were within 200 yards of the Darby Farm, the Yankees opened fire into their flank and rear, causing a panic. One Tarheel noted that Col. Cowan “don sum of his big Swaring” and ordered the men to fall back. The same soldier who noted this heated use of profanity engaged in some of his own when he summed up the fight as follows: “we had our asses whip[ped] off us if the truth was knone.”

There was plenty of whipping to be had in the upper field as well. Just as Conner’s attack force was emerging from its works, Federal cavalry was advancing up the Long Bridge Road. This was the vanguard of Gregg’s Division, which had been tasked with spearheading the long-awaited turning movement of Sheridan’s cavalry. Gregg’s force arrived just as the cracks from Merritt’s skirmishers began to fill the air with the sound of carbine fire.

The remainder of Hunt’s and all of Henagan’s Brigades, numbering around 1,700 men, emerged from the woods and quickly closed the distance between themselves and their blue coated counterparts. Gregg was fortunate to have the assistance of two cannon under Lt. William N. Dennison’s battery of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. As the Confederates advanced, Dennison’s pieces “knocked gaps through their exposed columns, which were almost instantly filled by closing up.”

But the Rebels on this part of the field put up a more stubborn fight and they surged forward, driving the Federals back. The horse artillery kept firing but was forced to retire after one gun was captured by an enterprising young South Carolinian. The loss of Dennison’s gun enabled the Yankee cavalrymen to withdraw without serious loss.

While Hunt and Henagan’s men were ecstatic over their hard-won victory over the Yankee artillery and cavalry, their revelry was cut short by the realization that their comrades in the lower field had not been as successful. One startled soldier was heard to exclaim, “My God, men look yonder. You may all be fools enough to stay here but I’ll not.” With the remainder of Gregg’s Division nearby and Kautz’s troopers beginning to arrive, the Confederates were forced to retreat.

Map by Steve Stanley
In the end, Conner had taken severe casualties with not much to show for it. In all, it is estimated that the Confederates suffered 377 casualties in this attack, while the Federals suffered approximately 200. This would be the last large scale combat of the First Deep Bottom Campaign.

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.