Category Archives: American Civil War

Grant desires “Price be pursued to the Arkansas River”: Curtis, Rosecrans, Pleasonton and the “battle” over Price

150 years ago today, Major-General Sterling Price’s campaign was far from over.  Maybe lunging through its last legs, but far from over.  The action at Newtonia on October 28, 1864 had effectively closed Missouri to the Confederacy.  On October 29, Price moved his headquarters south of Pineville, Missouri.  He moved to Maysville the next day.  By November 1st, Price’s column reached Cane Hill, Arkansas – technically Boonsborough, which was one of three small communities in the area.  At that point, Price dispatched part of his column under Major General James Fagan to support an attack on Fayetteville (an action I’ll pick up later).  Thus by All Saints’ Day, Price was well into Arkansas.


However, the Federal’s pursuit of Price was not to the effect that authorities back east preferred.   Brigadier-General James Blunt remained in pursuit with his division after the action at Newtonia. For Major-General Samuel Curtis, in command of the Army of the Border, Blunt’s 1,000 effectives were the only force to push forward.  Major-General Alfred Pleasonton, with the cavalry from the Department of Missouri, was not in pursuit.  After the fights on October 25, Pleasonton pulled most of his command off to refit.  On October 27, he issued instructions, presumably from Major-General William Rosecrans, to withdraw the remainder (brigades of Brigadier-Generals  John Sanborn and John McNeil).

Granted, Pleasonton’s cavalrymen had been in the saddle through most of the month.  And at the same time, those troops were supposed to be securing portions of Missouri (which, by the way, happened to be reporting Confederate activity in the wake of Price’s transit.) But a golden opportunity was out there for the taking – the elimination of an entire Confederate army.  The split command caused problems throughout the pursuit of Price, and on October 29-31 that rift was the saving grace for Price.   From Washington came a telegram for Curtis from Major-General Henry Halleck:

General Grant directs that Price be pursued to the Arkansas River, or at least till he encounters Steele or Reyonlds.

This order referenced the commands of Generals Frederick Steele  and Joseph J. Reynolds in Arkansas.  The orders did not reach Curtis until October 30.  In his response written at 1 a.m. that day, Curtis threw Rosecrans under the bus:

I send couriers with orders to this effect directed to the several brigade commanders of troops of General Rosecrans, who had abandoned the pursuit by his orders. I will proceed with my own force toward Cassville, hoping to concentrate sufficient troops at that point to resume the pursuit.  I also send to General Steele your dispatch, indorsing on it the present direction taken by the enemy.

Six hours later, Curtis sent off a very lengthy, but detailed, summation of the situation with a barb attached, “The delay occasioned by General Rosecrans’ orders will be the equivalent to thirty-six hours….”

Rosecrans was, of course, communicating with Halleck also.  On October 28 he received his orders from Washington:

General Grant thinks you can and ought to send troops to assist General Thomas….

This prompted an exchange between Rosecrans, Major-General George Thomas and Major-General William T. Sherman to work out the details.  The following day, Brigadier-General John Rawlings, Grant’s own Chief of Staff, received orders to go west to supervise the “re-enforcing the armies actually confronting the principal armies of the enemy.” Grant’s instructions to Rawlings indicates clearly his impression of the situation.

Now that Price is retreating from Missouri, it is believed that the whole force sent to that State from other departments can be spared at once. The fact, however, that a considerable force is pursuing Price, and may go so far that some time may elapse before they can be returned to Missouri and be distributed for the proper protection of the State, has induced me to make two separate orders….

The orders given pertained to Major-Generals A.J. Smith’s and Joseph Mower’s commands.  Their destinations depended much on the evolving situations in Tennessee and Georgia.

Meanwhile, Rosecrans, in Warrensburg, Missouri at that time (about half way between Jefferson City and Kansas City, so still “in the field”), was quick to respond to Curtis’ couriers on October 30:

Your dispatch of 1 a.m. of this date received.  It was my intention and expectation that Sanborn’s and McNeil’s brigades should follow the enemy…. [Sanborn] has orders to take every available man and force Price within reach of Steele’s men…. [General Edward F] Winslow’s brigade was worn down by long marches and is under orders to return to General Sherman….

That last mention, of the fourth brigade in the provisional cavalry division, is noteworthy.  Rosecrans was at this time dealing with conflicting requirements – chasing Price and directing units to Tennessee.  Supporting Rosecrans’ side of this, from Fort Scott came Colonel Charles Blair’s report, stating in part, “McNeil never stopped his pursuit.”  What is interesting, at this juncture of the dialog, is Pleasonton is absent from the message routing.  His “provisional” division was for all practical purposes working as independent brigades.

For a chief of staff thousands of miles from the fighting, perceptions are reality.  On October 31, some of those perceptions, built upon Curtis’ telegrams, brought cross words between Halleck and Rosecrans.  At 12:30, Halleck sent a message which reinforced the orders arriving with Rawlings:

Lieutenant-General Grant directs me to repeat his order that General A.J. Smith’s command be brought to Saint Louis with all possible dispatch, preparatory to its being sent to General Thomas.  Telegraph what date it will reach Saint Louis.

Before that telegram arrived, Rosecrans (still in Warrensburg) sent an update to Halleck relating Sanborn’s progress, stressing that brigade was “to take all his horses that are not exhausted and continue to move on the enemy’s rear.…”  Rosecrans went on to estimate Price’s force at 20,000 – a figure he attributes to Pleasonton.  He further said Major-General Marmaduke, captured on October 25, felt Price only had three cannons left.  Conflicting estimates of the enemy force, perhaps?  But certainly that message had not arrived in Washington before Halleck’s second telegram of the day:

General Curtis telegraphs that you have ordered the troops back from the pursuit of Price, directing General McNeil to Rolla and General Sanborn to Springfield. The orders of General Grant and General Canby are that the pursuit must be continued to the Arkansas River, or until you meet the forces of Generals Steele or Reynolds. These orders must be obeyed.

Rosecrans didn’t receive the two telegrams until much later in the day.  Only at 6:30 p.m. was Rosecrans able to respond to Halleck’s first telegram.  In that response, Rosecrans assured Halleck that A.J. Smith was on the way.  Then at 9 p.m., Rosecrans responded, somewhat awkwardly to the second telegram:

Generals Sanborn and McNeil determined the defeat of the enemy at Newtonia, and everything has been, and is being, done to accomplish the objects arrived at by the orders of General Canby and General Grant. Under all these circumstances of the case, it is the matter of regret that General Curtis should have thought proper to telegram you as he did.  That Winslow’s cavalry did not accompany them may be easily understood when it is stated that it had been marching after Price fifty-two days, and their horses are worn out.  General Sanborn telegraphs tonight that one-half of the horses of the troops from Saint Louis have been abandoned by the way.

And to Rosecrans’ credit, his orders for Sanborn and McNeil that day reiterated the intent – continue after Price.

Over the following days, the correspondence with Washington turned more and more towards the urgent need to transfer troops to Thomas.  Still, not until November 3 did the orders go out that would resolve the problem caused by the split command structure.  To Curtis, Halleck sent:

The Secretary of War directs that you assume command of all troops belonging to the Department of Missouri and now serving on the western border of that State, and pursue Price toward the Arkansas River, or till he reaches the troops of General Steele or Reynolds.

So, 27 days after Price turned west from Jefferson City… and 46 days after Price entered Missouri … there was one commander in charge of the direct efforts against him.  A lot of miles, and a lot of telegrams, were wasted before the battle over command was decided.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 41, Part IV, Serial 86, pages 301, 305, 330-1, 342-4, and 420.)

Sesquicentennial’s final stretch run … to Appomattox in 2015!

Civil War Trust is playing the “Long Game,” as they have all through the Sesquicentennial, as they look to 2015.  On Friday, October 31, the Trust and Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe will hold a press conference to announce new preservation efforts at Sailor’s Creek and High Bridge.   Efforts to preserve more of those battlefields happens right at the time our 150th-focused attention looks towards the Virginia Southside.  (And, oh by the way, the Trust has now passed the 40,000 acres preserved mark… just four years after passing the 30,000 mark.)

April 2015 is not far off.  For those of us who’ve taken the time to be “in the moment” for the 150ths, it’s time for some long range planning of our own.  Not to overlook the actions at Petersburg and Richmond between now and March …  but if I may offer a critique, those events need to get posted on the respective park websites!  I know many will look at that first couple of weeks in April as an “anchor” in sesquicentennial plans.

And the trail is blazed well, thanks to long efforts to provide interpretation along the route of Lee’s Retreat.  And there are plenty of resources to follow this campaign.   So no excuses for this one!

Appomattox Court House NHP already has posted a list of events from April 8 to April 12, 2015.  Links there also mention events in the county and the Museum of the Confederacy – Appomattox.  I’m glad to see a number of real time events, to include printing paroles, listed.  Such will be a bit less “battle” than at other 150th NPS events.  But that’s the nuts and bolts history that I like. Walk us through the history, as it happened!

Still there’s a lot of space between Five Forks and Appomattox.  I’m sure more events are planned for those opening days of April next year.  Certainly a bus tour or two.  If nothing else, just a drive through the Southside over those days, with Chris Calkins guide in hand, is attractive.  Regardless, I plan to be out there every day I can.  Maybe using a hashtag like #apmtx150?

Who’s with me?


“Maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice, it is an earned benefit” applied to the Civil War?

XBradTC, posted a very powerful quote yesterday:

Further the tension between firepower and maneuver-based doctrines often appears as more of a false dichotomy than self-styled maneuver theorists might allow. As DePuy stated in partial response to critics who accused him of being an attritionist, “maneuver warfare is not a doctrinal choice, it is an earned benefit.”

The citation is from a paper examining the nuances of mechanized infantry doctrine as evolved in the US Army.  For someone like me, who cut teeth on the late-1980s to early-1990s doctrine (AirLand Battle ™), this is a good read.  But I suspect for most the audience, such is a deep end subject.

But background is in order, as the quote drops a name.  In 1973, General William E. DePuy was the commander of Army’s Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC).  This was a “new” organization, having been formed as part of the Army’s reorganization after the Vietnam War.  It was a difficult time for the Army as an institution, the particulars of which would take a full post to unwind and would detract from Civil War studies.  The important bit for this discussion is DePuy was the man charged with reforming Army training and doctrine as it recovered from Vietnam, digested lessons of the Arab-Israeli Wars, and transitioned into a legitimate bulwark against the Soviets.

And what DePuy did during his tenure in command was remarkable.  The short line here is that DePuy transformed the way the Army thought about “doctrine” and its relation to training, procurement, and even recruitment (it was an all-volunteer army for the first time in several decades).  The product was the 1976 version of FM 100-5, named “The Operations of Army Forces in the Field.” The new manual was not some esoteric work, but stood up equally the officers’ club, motor pool and gunnery range.  FM 100-5 gave the Army’s doctrine a vocabulary which it had not before.

However, the main complaint about DuPuy’s FM 100-5 was with the concept of “Active Defense” which emphasized firepower to reduce the enemy forces.  Some detractors felt this emphasis took away from maneuver. As XBradTC alludes to in his post, such brought on the classic discussions of firepower vs. maneuver.  But in DePuy’s defense, the 1976 FM 100-5 was ground in reality – what could the Army do with what it had, given the political and military constraints at the time.  At that time any war in Central Europe offered no space to trade for time, outnumbered by several multiples, in a war which would be decided within a few weeks. (See Sir John Hackett’s novels on the Third World War to get a feel for this “scenario.”)

In response to the criticism, after DePuy’s retirement in 1977, the Army began to evolve FM 100-5.  Such refinement brought forward revised versions of the manual so that by the mid-1980s a young Army cadet was studying “AirLand Battle Doctrine” which stressed agility, initiative, depth, and synchronization.  Some have cited that as a counter-turn back to “maneuver warfare.”  But the deep thinkers will recognize, as tipped in the quote above, the discussion was really back to the old “war of attrition vs. war of annihilation” debate.

So what does DePuy, FM 100-5, and this maneuver-firepower and attrition-annihilation thing have to do with the Civil War?

Well DePuy’s quote touched upon something I’ve long weighed in regard to Civil War operations.  While the Civil War generals didn’t name it “operations” as we do today, they still practiced operations at the same level (just called it “strategy” or “grand strategy”).  So mull over this notion:

Maneuver warfare is an earned benefit.

Robert E. Lee earned the benefit of maneuver after fighting seven days of hard battles in June 1862, and that benefit paid out with an advance into Maryland.  Lee again earned the benefit of maneuver in the spring of 1863, which he used to advantage during the first half of that summer.

But those are easy point to select.  Let’s get a bit more complex.  On November 7, 1863, Meade threw the Army of the Potomac at some of Lee’s advanced posts along the Rappahannock River.  It lead to the Mine Run campaign.  A longer reaching effect was the Army of Northern Virgina left Culpeper county for the last time.  In that light, can we say that that Meade earned the maneuver benefit, spending it in part for Mine Run… BUT… more importantly, because this allowed Meade to “winter” the Army of the Potomac in Culpeper County, the maneuver benefit carried forward to the spring of 1864.  You see, “maneuver” is not just “movement” but also involves manipulation of the situation or resources to achieve the ends (to the point that some of us would like to strike “maneuver” in the manuals and replace it with “manipulation”).   Meade’s position in Culpeper ensured that when Grant opened the Overland Campaign, the Federals had the initiative, didn’t have an extra set of fords to cross (as had happened a year before), and could force Lee to react at the tactical level.

And beyond that, let us go into those “deep thinking” discussions.  Many will recall the excellent NPS interpretation last spring highlighting the different strategies employed by Grant and Lee for the Overland Campaign.  These boiled down to attrition vs. annihilation.  But is either approach predisposed to firepower over maneuver, or vice versa? Of course not!  These are two different layers to the complex subject of operations, in the military context.

As we consider tactical actions that seem unsound to us today – say like the assaults at Cold Harbor on June 3, or better yet, the Crater on July 30, 1864 – I think we see commanders using firepower (in the form of muskets and bayonets) in an effort to earn that maneuver benefit.  Those attacks went forward NOT to simply grind away the adversary. Rather the intent was to manipulate the situation to allow a follow up with maneuver.

Great quote.  One to keep in the pocket.