“Obligation of a proper observance of the Sabbath”: Lee’s General Orders No. 15

Issued on this day (February 7) in 1864:

General Orders No. 15.
Hdqrs. Army of Northern Virginia,
February 7, 1864.

I. The attention of the army has already been called to the obligation of a proper observance of the Sabbath, but a sense of its importance, not only as a moral and religious duty, but as contributing to the personal health and well-being of the troops, induces the commanding general to repeat the orders on that subject. He has learned with great pleasure that in many brigades convenient houses of worship have been erected, and earnestly desires that every facility consistent with the requirements of discipline shall be afforded the men to assemble themselves together for the purpose of devotion.

II. To this end he directs that none but duties strictly necessary shall be required to be performed on Sunday, and that all labor, both of men and animals, which it is practicable to anticipate or postpone, or the immediate performance of which is not essential to the safety, health, or comfort of the army, shall be suspended on that day.

III. Commanding officers will require the usual inspections on Sunday to be held at such time as not to interfere with the attendance of the men on divine service at the customary hour in the morning. They also will give their attention to the maintenance of order and quiet around the places of worship, and prohibit anything that may tend to disturb or interrupt religious exercises.

R. E. Lee,

I’ve seen this order cited in some forums as evidence of the deep religious sentiments of Lee.  There is no doubt of Lee’s feelings in that respect.  That said, consider what this order is and is not.  Lee did not direct times, places, and method of religious services.  Nor did he direct the attendance in those services.  There are two objectives in this order.  There would be a period within the weekly work cycle, in conjunction with religious observations, for purposes of “personal health and well-being.” And there will be no activities scheduled, aside from those of critical importance, which would interfere with that period.

I’ve also seen this order cited in a demonstrative tone offering comparison to activities on the other side of the battle lines.  As if the Federals were not as religious or less observant of the sabbath.  I think there is ample weight of evidence to the contrary.  Recall, of course, Charles Wainwright’s observations during the same winter.

We might offer many observations about General Orders No. 15.  I submit the most important of which was that Robert E. Lee understood even the lowest ranking soldier in the army needed a little time in which to be anything but a soldier.

(Source: OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 1150.)

Federal Artillery at Morton’s Ford: Good tactical execution in support of poor decisions

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the Federal crossing of the Rapidan, and the opening of the Battle of Morton’s Ford.  Although small compared to other major actions, Morton’s Ford was just as complex.  As alluded to in an earlier post, a “demonstration” is not an easy operation to pull off.  Though I’m no expert on Morton’s Ford, and cannot offer any great perspective of interpretation, I would like to call attention to the employment of Federal artillery during the battle.  Consider a passage from Brigadier-General John C. Caldwell’s (commanding First Division, Second Corps) report on the action:

Understanding as I did that the orders from army headquarters were not to precipitate an engagement, but to draw a large force of the enemy to our front, I determined not to advance farther, but to hold our position. To accomplish this I made the following disposition: The left of the Third Division rested near the river opposite Stringfellow’s house, but the right was on open ground at some distance from the river. To protect the right, which was much the weakest in infantry, the rifled batteries of Captains Thompson and Arnold were placed in position on the high ground near the river bank, so as to cover completely with their fire any approach of the enemy on our right. A section of Captain Ricketts’ battery, supported by a regiment of infantry, was placed in position near Stringfellow’s house, so as to enfilade any force advancing against our left. The other four guns of Captain Ricketts were placed behind the crest near Captain Arnold’s position, ready to come into battery at any moment if needed. At the same time the Second Division, Brigadier-General Webb commanding, was advanced to within a short distance of the river, while the First Division was in the edge of the woods.

Caldwell’s description of battery placement matches well with the map provided by his boss, Major-General Gouverneur K. Warren:


Rickett’s and Arnold’s batteries appear on the map on the lower right.  Thompson’s Battery is above the map legend to the far right.  A section of Rickett’s battery (two cannon symbols) is on the left, on bluffs near the river.

With those positions in mind, consider a section from Dennis Hart Mahan’s Outpost, in regards to river crossings:

The passage of a river in the face of an enemy is an operation of extreme difficulty… The point, selected to pass a river in the face of an enemy should combine several properties, as a position; to give the assailant a decided advantage over the assailed.  The river at this point should be narrow, so that the bridge may be rapidly constructed; the banks should form a bend towards the assailant [NOTE: I think he  intended to say “assailed” here], to enable [the assailant] to plant his batteries in a position to concentrate their fire on that part of ground, on the opposite bank, where the troops must form; care being taken that these batteries are not exposed to an enfilading fire from those assailed….

Let me emphasize again for the reader of that passage, Mahan’s wording is not easy to follow and mixes “assailant” where one would assume he meant “assailed.” Mahan included this section inside a chapter describing how outposts should defend, among other things, river crossing points, which may explain the miss-match of labels.

But you get the gist of this – Mahan taught the cadets at West Point to cross rivers at narrow points where a river bend allows for concentrated, converging fires upon the enemy.  Common sense stuff, right? And yes, clearly Major-General Ambrose Burnside skipped that day of instruction.  But Caldwell, with no pre-war military experience, grasped the concept.

But while offering a “textbook” example of employing artillery in support of a river crossing, Caldwell’s account demonstrates the biggest flaw in the Federal operation – and one that went right up to the very top in the chain of command.  As he understood his orders, Caldwell was not to advance beyond the river and “determined not to advance farther, but to hold our position.”  That’s it.  And the troops gained nothing of value standing at that position.

Again, turn back to the military definition of “demonstration.”  The attacker must consider what to do if the situation offers either an opportunity or a unassailable obstacle.  Caldwell, Warren, and others failed to do that at Morton’s Ford on February 6, 1864.  Instead, they stood still.  Perhaps the worst of the possible options.  And that decision was derived from a complete failure by those at higher echelons to layout objectives, assignments, and desired results.

The action at Morton’s Ford was designed to keep the Confederates focused on the Rapidan River front.  That it accomplished.  But I would ask if instead of leaving Brigadier-General Alexander Hays’ Division exposed for a night, could the same “distraction” have been accomplished with a few dozen ammunition chests worth of firing from the guns Caldwell had in place?

The old Sergeant-Major is reminding me, “never send a man where a few well placed artillery rounds will serve the same purpose.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 33, Serial 60, page 120; Dennis Hart Mahan, An Elementary Treatise on Advanced-guard, Out-post, and Detachment Service of Troops, and the Manner of Posting and Handling Them in Presence of an Enemy, New York: John Wiley, 1861, pages 81-2.)