150 Years Ago: Wiggins Battery delaying the Federals

Back in November I highlighted the story of the “Gallant Pelham” using his horse artillery to delay the Federal advance at Unison. Allow me to offer a similar display of artillery, technically not “horse artillery” but at least accompanying cavalry, in the West. But this story is best framed by the words of those on the receiving end.

First, Captain John Mendenhall, commanding the artillery of the Left Wing of the Fourteenth Corps:

This army marched from camp, near Nashville, December 26, the left wing marching on the Murfreesborough Pike.

December 26, about 3 p.m., our advance was brought to a stand-still, near La Vergue, by a rebel battery. It was opposed by a section of artillery serving with the cavalry, which, being unable to dislodge them enemy, our advance battery (Captain Standart’s, Battery B, First Ohio) was, after a little delay, put in position an opened fire, soon silencing the enemy battery.

The Federal infantry pressing down the pike towards La Vergue was the brigade of Brigadier General Milo Hascall. In his report, Hascall indicated the Confederate artillery contested his advance to Stewart’s Creek. Hascall resumed the advance on the 27th, delayed somewhat by bad weather. But the rain was not the only thing holding up the advance.

… At half a dozen points on the way we were resisted by the enemy’s artillery; but Lieutenant Estep’s Battery, assisted by Maj. S. Race, in command of the artillery of the division, soon dislodged them, and we moved forward without allowing ourselves to be even temporarily detained, until we came to the eminence just in front of our camp, and which overlooks the bridge at Stewart’s Creek.

Lieutenant George Estep, 8th Indiana Battery, gave the Confederate gunners credit in his report of the action:

.. I could at no time (on account of the disposition of the enemy to retire) get an opportunity to fire more than two or three shots. I fired in all 42 rounds; that these were damaging to the enemy or his guns I am unable to tell.

But at last gaining a view of the bridge over Stewart’s Creek, Hascall’s attempts to gain the objective were again frustrated by the Confederate artillery:

Here we found the enemy had a battery planted on the hill beyond Stewart’s Creek. We had no sooner planted a section of Estep’s battery and opened upon them than they promptly returned our fire. The fearful accuracy of their fire soon convinced us that this was a different battery from that with which we had been contending all day, as every shot from them either struck or pieces or came within close proximity. Having no long-range guns in Estep’s battery, I sent to the rear for some out of another battery, and as soon as they had got in position the enemy’s fire was silenced.

Estep was on the receiving end of this Confederate fire:

In the last position which I took, commanding the Stewart’s Creek Bridge, I fired 8 rounds, and received about the same number in return; one of the enemy’s shots took a spoke from the wheel of one of my gun-carriages. I am happy to say no other damages were done.

The delay, as the Federals contended with this unnamed battery, allowed the Confederates to fire the bridge over Stewart’s Creek. Although the Federals (the 3rd Kentucky, if memory serves me) were able to secure the bridge and put out the fires, damage was done. As I mentioned yesterday, the engineers spent some time repairing the bridge there in order to facilitate the advance.

But Hascall didn’t face multiple Confederate batteries on December 26-27. He faced one. Captain Jannedens H. Wiggins’ Clark County (Arkansas) Battery supported Brigadier General Joseph Wheeler’s cavalry brigade, which was contesting the advance. Of the action Wiggins wrote:

On the evening of December 26, the enemy advanced upon La Vergne, and one section of the battery was advanced, under Lieutenant J.W. Clloway, to engage the enemy. During the engagement that evening we lost 3 horses and had 2 men wounded. That night the section under Lieutenant Calloway retired about a mile, and one section under Lieutenant J.P. Bryant was left in La Vergne on picket.

On the morning of the 27th, Lieutenant Calloway, with his section, was ordered to the front to engage the enemy again, while Lieutenant Bryant, with his section, was posted on a hill to the left of the pike and in rear of La Vergne, to relieve the retreat of Lieutenant Calloway. The battery retired to Stewart’s Creek that evening, engaging the enemy by sections alternatively. Loss that day, one horse. One section, under Lieutenant Braynt, was left on picket at Stewart’s Creek until Monday morning, the rest of the battery retiring further to the rear.

Wiggins indicated that the battery delayed the Federal advance again on December 29, using the same tactics. Throughout the next days, the battery split to support Wheeler’s cavalry operations and also Major General John C. Breckinridge’s division. Concluding his report, Wiggins reported, “The stock was very much exhausted, not having been unharnessed in six days.”

Again, let us say that given good placement, cool gunners, and solid leadership, horse artillery could hold an enemy at bay. That held true in 1862 in both Eastern and Western theaters of war.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 20, Part I, Serial 29, pages 453-4, 465, 475, and 965.)

Rosecrans’ Pioneer Brigade: A step towards Combat Engineers

When General William Rosecrans took command of the Fourteenth Corps (which would become the Army of the Cumberland), he recognized the need for engineering resources. The Army’s orders required campaigning across rough terrain and crossing several water-courses. Lacking a standing body of dedicated engineers, Rosecrans required the line infantry units to provide fatigue details for the engineering tasks.

Rosecrans’ chief engineer, Captain James St. Clair Morton, directed the detailed troops to tasks such as bridge repairs and road improvements through November and December. These troop details became a Pioneer Brigade under the command of Morton. Three battalions of infantrymen turned into engineers, supported by the Chicago Board of Trade Battery under Captain James Stokes, made up this Pioneer Brigade. The intent was for these pioneers to work building bridges, improving fords, building entrenchments, and generally performing other tasks with the shovel while the Army was on the move. But when battle neared, the details would return to the line commands.

That plan worked fine as Rosecrans directed his army out of Nashville in the closing days of December 1862. In his official report on the battle of Stones River, Morton noted the brigade constructed two bridges over Stewart’s Creek on the eve of battle. On the morning of December 31, the brigade’s task was to improve McFadden Ford on Stones River in support of Rosecrans’ planned move on Murfreesboro. But this move came to a halt with the Confederate attacks on the right side of the Federal lines.

After preliminary work at the ford, Morton’s Pioneers moved to a reserve position along the Nashville Pike. The flow of battle soon placed the engineers the most critical point in the most critical phase of the battle. Instead of working the spade or repairing some bridge, the infantrymen turned engineers were called upon to use the musket. Instead of returning to their respective line units, the pioneers fought as a line unit,

At some point during the action, the Pioneers constructed basic earthworks to protect access to the Nashville Pike. Some of those works are there today.

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Morton’s pioneers remained in the fight for the next two days, alternating between roles of infantry and engineer. Stokes battery, which remained in support much of that time, fired 1,450 rounds – a total surpassed by only three other batteries engaged in the battle.

There is a ready comparison, favorable on both counts, regarding the battlefield performance of engineers at Fredericksburg and Stones River. At Fredericksburg, a designated, organic engineer brigade enacted a river crossing under fire. At Stones River, a task force of infantrymen detailed for work as engineers performed combat engineering on the battlefield. No longer was the engineer soldier expected to toil behind the front lines, working a sweat but not exposed to enemy fire. Engineers were now combat troops directly augmenting the combat arms in the battle.

The “other” Brandy Station preservation story: Stevensburg

With last week’s good news about Brandy Station’s Fleetwood Hill still making the rounds through the preservation community, let me mention another “front” at Brandy Station which deserves attention – Stevensburg and Hansborough Ridge. For some time I’ve been tracking proceedings regarding the widening of Virginia Highway 3, which passes on the south end of the ridge and through Stevensburg. Now’s a good time for an update.

The project dates back to the 1990s when the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) looked to widen the highway to four lanes through Culpeper County. The focus for this particular improvement is a five mile section between Stevensburg and Lignum. While multi-lane thoroughfares in rural areas are nice time-savers, they leave a wide footprint. This same highway cuts through the Chancellorsville battlefield and the northern edge of the Wilderness. In the past, VDOT prepared several options for the improvement. One option, designated Alternative A, would for the most part expand the existing right-of-way (in blue on the map below). Alternative B placed a by-pass north of Stevensburg (shown as a red line red).


Notice the red shaded sections on the map. The solid red shadings are portions of the Brandy Station battlefield. The hashed sections are part of the battlefield study area. In this case where Colonel Alfred Duffié’s division approached the 2nd South Carolina and 4th Virginia Cavalry on June 9, 1863. The forces clashed roughly where the two “alternatives” diverge. Also seen on the map is another Civil War site. A green outline designates one of the many Army of the Potomac campsites from the winter of 1863-4. And I would point out that remains of those encampments are up there today – in some places the very stones remain in the places the soldiers left them as they departed for the Overland Campaign.

That in mind, you can see where any widening of Highway 3 would impact heretofore undeveloped sites of significance. According to VDOT’s documentation, Alternative A would require purchase of 9.7 acres of battlefield while Alternative B would require 26.3 acres of the battlefield (and over fifty within the study area). When the project funding converted from state to federal, Alternative B came off the table due to that factor and environmental impacts.

Late last year, another option floated to place roundabouts in an effort to ease traffic through Stevensburg. But the Commonwealth Transportation Board turned that down. What is left is “Alternative A” with a loss of acres of the battlefield and encroachment on nearby Salubria (which a colonial era house). Now county officials are saying, “The design is basically done, and the right-of-way is done and we would hope that you take advantage of this and get some construction done.”

VDOT indicates about 8,000 vehicles a day pass through Stevensburg on average. That is expected to increase upwards of 14,000 by 2035. But compare that to another VDOT project also aimed to widen a state highway –  Virginia 7 at Reston. This plan would open a road from four to six lanes. Today that section carries a daily average of 60,000 vehicles, and will increase to 87,000 by 2034. Do the math, Virginia 7 will carry over four times the amount of traffic by 2035.

Furthermore, if we are discussing safety, the number of reported accidents on that section of Virginia 7 likewise is many times greater than that reported in Stevensburg. The main thing keeping the fatal accident count down is the slow speeds due to traffic congestion. If safety is the main objective for the Stevensburg widening, then would a wider highway achieve that? Or would a safer alternative be to slow traffic down – as has been successful through the US Highway 50 corridor from Aldie to Upperville?

Both projects – Virginia 3 and Virginia 7 widening – carry roughly the same price tag, which begs the next logical question: where would the tax dollars be better spent?

Now sharp readers will point out that both highway projects I mention pass through battlefields. Yes! Dranesville. But as I’ve blogged before, Dranesville is a lost battlefield with less than “take what you can get” preservation. Hansborough Ridge is a case where encroachment and development can be stopped before the resource is lost. Putting a half-dozen or more wayside markers along Virginia 3 to discuss Hansborough Ridge is hardly an “offset” and isn’t all that can be done.

So where are the preservationists on this issue at Hansborough Ridge? Sadly, the organization that should be stepping up to say something is instead sitting by quietly. This is, after all, part of the Brandy Station battlefield which the Brandy Station Foundation (BSF) was created to protect. Shortly after taking over as President, Joseph McKinney put a lid on any actions by BSF in regards to the Virginia 3 widening. Rather bluntly, he called for all members of BSF (not just board members) to “let the residents decide the matter” and to live with that outcome. Since then BSF has submitted nothing for review in the pubic hearings, said very little during the hearings, and completely avoided the subject on their web site (and newsletter). [UPDATE: And BSF failed to provide any input for the Section 106 process, which was required of VDOT by the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act.  That process was designed to allow preservation organizations to “get a word in” and champion for the historical resources.]  Sadly, BSF seems more concerned with preservation of one particular structure in Brandy Station (where I’m told ghost hunters frequently pursue otherworldly cats) than actually advocating for the preservation of the battlefield itself.

At least BSF should step forward to advocate an option that does not damage the integrity of the battlefield. In other localities, by simply raising the discussion (even if losing round) and highlighting the historical treasure, preservationists have scored long term wins. In 2035, we shouldn’t be looking back at Hansborough Ridge as a “take what you can get” slice of preserved battlefield.