Monthly Archives: June 2012

150 years ago: Lt. King, White Oak Swamp, and the Medal of Honor

June 30, 1862 began badly for the men of Captain George Hazzard’s combined Batteries A and C, Fourth U.S. Artillery.  The previous evening, the artillerists rested as best soldiers can after several days of battle.  They woke to find the Army of the Potomac in retreat… and the battery left behind.  Hazzard quickly gathered the men, horses, and 12-pdr Napoleons, then quietly took up the march.  Hazzard’s men barely made the crossing at White Oak Swamp.  For the remainder of the morning the men and horses caught what rest they could.

White Oak Swamp

Shortly after noon, the sounds of battle rousted the gunners yet again.  This was General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s command moving to cut behind the main Federal line of defense.  In his official account, Lieutenant Rufus King, Jr., who at that time commanded a section in Hazzard’s battery, described the incoming artillery fire:

About two hours after our arrival at Nelson’s farm we were suddenly aroused (most of the men sleeping soundly at the time) by a perfect hail storm of artillery missiles, the enemy having opened upon us with at least, in my estimation, three batteries. My reason for so thinking is from the immense rapidity of their fire and the different kinds of projectiles thrown, some of which I picked up myself, finding them to be the Armstrong gun, 6-pounder rifled and 6-pounder smooth-bore; also pieces of railroad iron from 6 to 12 inches long.

Seven Confederate batteries were dropping rounds on the Federal lines.  Hazzard’s battery was soon ordered up to counter this Confederate barrage.  From a position overlooking the White Oak Swamp bridge (or more accurately the remains thereof), Hazzard’s gunners joined a fast growing artillery duel.  King described the scene in his report:

We commenced firing between 1 and 2 o’clock p.m., firing very rapidly and drawing the entire fire of the enemy’s batteries upon us, no other battery being in position. The enemy was completely covered by a thick wood, and the only indication we had of their position was from the smoke of their guns. Their fire was very rapid and very precise, most of their shot and shell striking within 20 feet of the battery and a perfect shower of grape passing through the battery. Were it not for the splendid position we had, few of us would have left the battle-field that day without a serious wound. The brow of the hill forming a natural breastwork, our guns, just pointing over the top of the hill, were in a manner sheltered, and most of the solid shot fired by the enemy struck the brow of the hill and ricochetted harmlessly over our heads. The men stood to their guns nobly, working them as coolly as if it was an ordinary practice, the chiefs of pieces sighting their guns themselves and relieving the cannoneers from their arduous duties by performing them themselves. Captain Hazzard behaved in the most gallant manner, encouraging the men and cheering them when they appeared fatigued, also superintended the entire fire of the battery, frequently changing the direction of the guns and sighting them himself. At one piece, where three of the horses of the limber had been shot and the harness entangled by their fall, and two of the drivers shot through the legs and feet, being unable to disentangle them themselves, Captain Hazzard performed the deed himself, also carrying ammunition to one piece where the cannoneers were entirely tired out, and taking turns with myself in performing the duties of No. 1.

But Hazzard’s bravery did not shield him from injury.

About half an hour after we had been in action Captain Hazzard was standing by one of the limbers, superintending the taking out of the ammunition, when a shell burst in the battery, a fragment striking Captain Hazzard in the leg, breaking the bone, and wounding him severely. He was immediately carried off the field and sent to the rear. Great praise is due to Captain Hazzard for the soldierly conduct he displayed in this engagement. The command of the battery then devolved upon me, and continued firing until I had expended all my ammunition.

Despite the position, the battery suffered from the concentrated fire upon them.  Confederate shot and shell struck some of the Napoleon guns.  King reported many implements broken by enemy fire.  Out of ammunition, he received permission to retire and replenish.  Captain Rufus Pettit’s Battery B, 1st New York Light Artillery, armed with 10-pdr Parrotts, replaced King’s gunners in the line.  As the New Yorkers rolled into position, King took the time to point out each Confederate gun.  After a few rounds, Pettit’s gunners found the range with one of the 10-pdr projectiles finding a Confederate ammunition chest.

Federal Artillery at White Oak Swamp

King brought the guns back up as the engagement continued, but his men were simply too tired to serve the pieces.  They remained under cover, occasionally firing at Confederates attempting to repair the bridge over the swamp. That evening, Batteries A and C fell in with other Federals concentrating on the high ground of Malvern Hill.  A lone section, under Lieutenant Edward Field, was among the last to leave the battlefield at White Oak Swamp.

Captain Hazzard died of his wound on August 11, 1862.

For his actions after assuming command of the battery, Lieutenant King received a brevet promotion to Captain and later the Medal of Honor.

First Lieutenant and Medal of Honor w...

Lieutenant Rufus King, Jr.

He served through the rest of the war, commanding Battery A, 4th US Artillery again in 1864.

(King’s report of the actions is in the Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, Report No. 13, pages 57-60.   Rufus King, Jr. was the son of General Rufus King, who commanded the famous “Iron Brigade” before taking over 1st Division of First Corps. )

150 years ago: The debut of railway artillery at Savage Station

One hundred and fifty years ago today (June 29), the seven days battles continued. Following the defeat at Gaines’ Mill, General George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac concentrated south of the Chickahominy River. The Federal position centered on a railway stop named Savage Station, on the Richmond and York River Railroad. The railway passed through the Federal lines, east to west, running into the Confederate lines defending Richmond. This arrangement provided the Confederates an opportunity to employ a new weapon in an effort to dislodge the Yankees from their positions at the gates of Richmond. General Robert E. Lee ordered forward an armored railway gun.

The story of the Confederate railway gun traces back to the desperate days of early June 1862. On June 5, General Lee inquired if Colonel Josiah Gorgas, Confederate Chief of Ordnance, had the means to mount a heavy cannon on an armored railway car. The mobility afforded on such mounting would counter the numerical superiority of the Federal siege guns (I hesitate to use the proper term “siege train”, which might confuse some readers). If the Army could not support this request, Lee asked if the Navy might.1

And it was the Navy which accepted this task. With Captain George Minor and Lieutenant John M. Brooke involved, the Navy expedited the work. On June 21, Lee informed Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, “…the railway battery will be ready for service to-morrow.” Lee felt it appropriate the Navy man the gun.2 Five days later, Captain Minor related more details about the railroad gun to Lee:

The railroad-iron plated battery designed by Lieut. John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32-pounder of 57 cwt., has been mounted and equipped by Lieut. R.D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the Army.3

The exact design is, in my view, open for some debate. A drawing based on the recollections of Confederate veteran Charles S. Gates appears in a 1921 Army assessment of railway artillery:4

Granted, memory should be taken with a grain of salt. This does depict a basic two-bogie flatcar with an angled superstructure. The front has iron plate on top of the wooden face. The carriage is, if not accurate, at least suggestive of a two truck navy carriage. Of course the gun depicted is not anything like a banded 32-pdr.

More recently, in the February 2011 issue of Civil War Times, David H. Schneider proposed one of the more familiar wartime photos, showing a railroad gun attributed to the Federals at Petersburg, actually depicts the Confederate railroad gun. Schneider suggested the two photos were taken in 1865 after Richmond was abandoned, and show Federal soldiers inspecting the weapon. (While that explanation is certainly plausible, and even lean in that direction, I think we are still short of documentation for positive identification.)

Railroad Gun, rear view

Readers may recall that I offered up a more precise identification of the gun on the railroad car in a letter to the editor that appeared in the August issue of the magazine. I contend the gun is not a Navy type, but rather an Army 32-pdr seacoast gun, based on the presence of sample scars (the dimple on the knob) and the lines. So we’d call this weapon a “32-pdr seacoast gun, banded and rifled.” I could even suggest a couple of Tredegar receipts to narrow down the date the weapon was modified.

Front View of Railway Gun

Unfortunately the surviving photo of the gun from the front does not offer sufficient resolution to make out any markings, which would conclusively identify the gun. And I cannot square my identification with Captain Minor’s description. He referenced a 57 cwt. gun, which would weigh around 6384 pounds. The likely Army models were Models 1840 or 1845, which would weigh between 6,900 and 7,200 pounds – or upwards of 62 cwt.

Regardless if we have the exact model of gun correct, the photos show a seven axle railcar, not a four axle type seen in the Gates drawing. So… Maybe it the Minor-Brooke railgun, and maybe it isn’t.

What we do know is the railgun went into action on June 29, 1862. As General John Magruder‘s command (his own division along with those of Generals D.R. Jones and Lafayette McLaws) advanced out of Richmond along the Williamsburg Road towards Savage Station, the railroad battery moved forward in support. In his official report, Magruder noted the railroad line had to be cleared of obstructions to allow the battery to move forward (one of the many limitations of railroad artillery). Once in position, Magruder felt the railroad gun performed well.

Taking my position on the railroad bridge, which commanded a good view of the fight and of the enemy’s line of battle, I directed the railroad battery, commanded most efficiently by Lieutenant Barry, to advance to the front, so as to clear, in some degree, the deep cut over which the [temporary Federal] bridge was thrown, and to open his fire upon the enemy’s masses below, which was done with terrible effect.5

General McLaws’ assessment was somewhat more subdued. He reported that Lieutenant Barry “… moved down the road, keeping pace with the advance of the troops and by his fire annoying the enemy whenever the range would allow. His enthusiasm at the decided success of the experiment and in pushing through obstructions deserve all praise.”6 On the Federal side, the railroad gun received little mention in official reports.

The main tactical shortfall of railway artillery (be that Civil War or World War era) was the limitations on employment. Railway guns were stuck on the railway. And unless complex traverse mechanisms were used, their traverse was very limited – often governed by the curvature of the track. The Confederate gun could only “point” in the direction the track ran. After the brief work at Savage Station, Confederate artillerists could not bring the rail-bound, rifled 32-pdr to bear on any targets.

Today the railroad right-of-way on which the first railway gun went to war still runs eastward from Richmond. The battlefield site, however, is largely covered by the intersection of Interstate Highways 64 and 295. A marker in Sandston, at the site of Fair Oaks Station where the rail gun was first pushed towards Federal lines, mentions the debut of railroad artillery.

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Notes:

  1. Letter from General Robert E. Lee to Colonel Josiah Gorgas, June 5, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part III, Serial 14, page 574.
  2. Letter from General Robert E. Lee to Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, June 21, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part III, Serial 14, page 610.
  3. Letter from Captain George Minor to General Robert E. Lee, June 26, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part III, Serial 14, page 615.
  4. Miller, H. W., Lt. Col. Railway Artillery: A Report on the Characteristics, Scope of Utility, Etc., of Railway Artillery, Volume I Washington: Government Print Office, 1921, Page 8.
  5. Report of General J. Bankhead Magruder, August 12, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, page 664.
  6. Report of General Lafayette McLaws, July 20, 1862. Official Records, Series I, Volume 11, Part II, Serial 13, page 718.

Douglas Southall Freeman and social media historians

Only with much side-stepping (or a bit of ignorance!) can you discuss the Seven Days’ Battles without mention of Douglas Southall Freeman.  Even today, nearly sixty years after his death, Freeman’s work stands large in respect to the 1862 campaigns, the Army of Northern Virginia, and the war in the east.  Considering the historiography of the war, Freeman is one of the more prominent, if not the most prominent, of the post-veterans generation.  And like many of his time, he held direct ties to the war as the son of a Confederate veteran.  Agree with him or not, if one studies the war sooner or later you must get acquainted with the author of Lee’s Lieutenants.

With dual careers as a newspaper editor and historian, Freeman did not follow the average career path for a historian.  And all the while, his work in the field of history was not compromised. He produced meticulously researched lengthy volumes that stand as fine examples of the historian’s craft.  Perhaps his position astride two professions gave Freeman more latitude when presenting history to the “masses.”  In my view, nothing illustrates that point better than the “Freeman Markers” which still, to this day, orient visitors to Civil War sites around Richmond.

Once again, let me point readers to Bernie Fisher’s excellent site detailing the history of those markers.  In the 1920s, the “Battlefield Markers Association” established interpretation at important sites around Richmond.

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Setting aside the War Department interpretive tablets at the five original battlefield parks, the Freeman Markers were the first permanent public interpretation on the battlefields (I consider the monuments of the war generation less objects of public interpretation and more memorialization, but that’s my opinion for what it is worth).  In their placement, the Freeman Markers employed the last of the veterans generation and the first of the centennial generation.  In terms of the evolution of interpretation, these markers provide a transition between the memorials into the pure interpretive displays appearing from the centennial years up through today.  So these markers of stone and iron represent the bridging of generations, to some degree.

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What’s more, these markers, in form and function, catered to a road bound audience.  Forward thinking on the part of Freeman and his cohorts, if you ask me.

And these markers served to do more than educate visitors.  The words raised in cast iron also raised awareness of the sites… towards battlefield preservation.  The Battlefield Markers Association lead into the Richmond Battlefield Parks Association, with an explicit aim to both preserve the sites and promote accessibility.  In time those efforts greatly aided the establishment of the Richmond National Battlefield Park that we know and enjoy today.  The markers were part, an important part, of a preservation campaign.

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But consider how those markers fit within the context of their times. When Freeman and crew were placing these markers, the “new thing” in terms of mass marketing techniques was the road-side billboard.  Serialized signs for promoting Burma-Shave were appearing along heavily trafficked roads.  Within a decade, barns across the South would feature “See Rock City” logos. In their form, the Freeman Markers employed that mass-marketing technique towards the goals of education, awareness, and ultimately preservation.

I see parallels to how Freeman used the markers, starting in the 1920s, to what we are doing today with social media.  Historians from the ranks of the blogroll to the right of this post (OK… such as myself) use blog posts, tweets, status updates, and photo shares to achieve the same general goals that Freeman worked towards.  (… and as Robert Moore will quickly remind us, not all education, awareness, and preservation need be acted out on physical objects or sites.)  We are using the “new thing” of our generation – social media – to pitch the same product.

I dare say if Douglas Southall Freeman were alive today, he’d have a blog, a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Linkedin account, and probably more than a few images pinned in Pinterest.  His sails would catch every yard of that prevailing wind. Why would any dedicated historian chose to do otherwise?