Witnesses to a disaster: Napoleons (and an Ordnance Rifle) captured at Ream’s Station, August 25, 1864

150 years ago today, the Army of the Potomac suffered one of its worst defeats of the war at Second Ream’s Station.  I see Timothy Orr has a piece up looking at the 14th Connecticut in the battle.  And Civil War Daily Gazette has a nice overview for those unfamiliar with the battle.

Years ago when visiting the battlefield for the first time, I made a note the battle deserved a proper sesquicentennial post.  In particular I wanted to discuss how the Confederates were able to maneuver in front of, and over, the Federal earthworks.  A grand defiance in the face of the “stalemated” battlefield you read of in general histories of the war.  But… alas… I must plead the date slipped away and my writing hours were too few for the task to be accomplished.

One aspect of the battle that I’d highlight is the performance of the Federal artillery.  Or I should say – lack of dominance on the battlefield.  Partly due to poor positioning, but largely just a symptom of a generally poor performance by the force overall, the Army of the Potomac’s artillery had a bad day all around.  At the end of the day the Confederates boasted the capture of nine pieces of artillery.  And we know exactly what guns they captured, thanks to Major J. G. Barnwell, Chief of Ordnance, Army of Northern Virginia:


Of that list there are some survivors around today.  Start with Revere Copper 12-pdr Napoleon #253:

Petersburg 201

Today it is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Petersburg Visitor center.

And #95 from Henry N. Hooper is at Manassas, near the 14th Brooklyn Memorial:

Manassas 11 Aug 12 030

Cyrus Alger 12-pdr Napoleon #45 has a home today at Pea Ridge, Arkansas:

pea ridge 273

Ames 12-pdr Napoleon #55 is today at Chickamauga-Chattanooga, but I don’t have a current photo of the gun.

Of the 3-inch Ordnance Rifles, #533 is at Gettysburg, guarding the wall near the Angle:

Gettysburg 4 Feb 12 187

While #541 is missing today, #542 is at Fort Sill, Oklahoma and #543 is on display somewhere in Boston, Massachusetts.

So that’s seven out of nine that survive today.  Apparently, being captured increases the survival rate of artillery pieces.

In closing, many, many thanks to the effort of Civil War Trust and other preservation organizations for their ongoing efforts to preserve the battlefield at Reams Station.

“I cannot undertake to deliver them sanitary stores.”: No relief for Andersonville

The rescue of several escaped Federal prisoners in early August 1864, authorities in the Department of the South raised their concerns about the treatment of prisoners in Andersonville, Georgia. Reports of the horrible conditions had filtered back to Federal ears starting in the spring.  But the first hand accounts from the escaped prisoners seemed to stir Major-General John Foster.  But several constraints limited the actions Foster could make.  Specifically concerned about the sanitary conditions of the prison, on August 21 Foster proposed to send supplies to the prison camp:

Being credibly informed that the U.S. soldiers prisoners of war at Andersonville, Ga., are dying rapidly for want of the comforts and necessaries of life, I feel anxious to send them such aid as we can. I therefore respectfully ask permission to send at once about ten wagonloads of sanitary stores, and that one or more of the U. S. officers now prisoners of war in your hands may be authorized to act as quartermaster in the reception and distribution of these stores to our prisoners. Owing to the lack of transportation from Port Royal Ferry to the railroad, I propose to send the supplies by the way of Savannah, meeting a steamer sent by you under flag of truce.

Foster addressed this request to Major-General Samuel Jones, his Confederate opposite number.   On August 25 (150 years from this posting), Jones responded, “The U.S. soldiers, prisoners of war at Andersonville, Ga., are in no way whatever under my control, and I therefore cannot undertake to deliver them the sanitary stores you desire to send without the sanction of the officer having charge of prisoners.”  And Jones did start the dialog with Brigadier-General John H. Winder at Andersonville that same day:

As the prisoners at Andersonville are not under my control I of course cannot undertake to send those stores to them without the sanction of the officer having charge of them. I refer the matter to you for such action as you may think proper and will inform General Foster that I have done so. A circular dated in Washington on the 10th instant, and signed by Colonel [William] Hoffman, Commissary-General of Prisoners, permits our prisoners to receive clothing and other articles, not contraband, from their relatives or friends residing beyond our (their) lines when forwarded by flag-of-truce boat or by any other authorized channel, so long as the prisoners of war held at Richmond and other Southern prisons are permitted to receive the same articles in the same manner from their relatives and friends in the loyal States.

The fine point here to consider – there was indeed an agreed upon mechanism for the Confederates to forward supplies to prisoners in the north.  That is not to say it was used to the degree that would provide significant relief.  That is to day the Federals would allow such.  Jones, to his credit, was calling that to the attention of Winder as a means for the Federals to at least ameliorate the suffering at Andersonville.  Winder’s response to Jones was not preserved in the official records.

One of the catches to Foster’s proposal was to have a Federal officer in the prison supervise the distribution of supplies.  Jones, even before consulting with Winder, refused that stipulation.  Jones preferred to have one of his officers, or one of those in Andersonville, manage distribution.  With that contention, eventually the Confederates would agree to the delivery of stores for Andersonville… but not until mid-September was that word passed to Foster.  By that time, the terrible, unhealthy summer weeks of 1864 were winding down.

So this brings us to the larger question, which must be considered with respect to Andersonville.  Confederate authorities, and chiefly Winder, insisted that all which could be done to provide for the prisoners was done – and what was not done was outside the limited resources of the Confederacy at that time.  So was that the case?  I doubt ten wagons of sanitary supplies, alone, would have significantly changed conditions at Andersonville.  But if that had turned into an established convention, it might have made a difference. The light then turns to Confederate authorities.

It’s what Brigadier-General Robert H. Chilton said of Andersonville that echoes here.  “The condition of the prison at Andersonville is a reproach to us as a nation.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 35, Part II, Serial 66, pages 257-8; Series II, Volume 7, Serial 120, 550, 662-3 and 678-9.)