Author Archives: Craig Swain

May 23, 1865: The Army of the Potomac on Parade

As we look back 150 years, May 23 is the anniversary of the first day of the Grand Review.  Keep in mind that we have sort of placed a spin on what the Grand Review was and is with separation from the event.  At the time, this was a celebration to honor the Army formations which had fought through numerous prominent campaigns during the war.  It was more a “closure” for the units than it was some demarcation of the end of war.  Some have, of late, started putting even more spin on the event, as they inquire about who was invited to march.  Let’s avoid the pitfall of putting innuendo where fact should provide basis for our interpretation.  The Grand Review was a “last honor” for three field armies.  And the first to step out on that review, 150 years ago today, was the Army of the Potomac.

Already this morning, Alan Gathman (Seven Score and Ten), Eric (Civil War Daily Gazette), and General Sherman’s Blog have installments detailing this event.   I recommend stopping by those blogs for a read when you have a moment on this holiday weekend… Memorial Day weekend, how appropriate.

As I’ve been following Sherman’s march for the last few months, I’ll have more to say on the Grand Review tomorrow.  But for now, I’ll close with…

Artillery!

Sesquicentennial Observance: The soldiers’ experience was more than combat

Yes, the experience of the Civil War soldier was much more than days of battle.  We can all agree with that, right?  There were days spent marching.  Lots of camps.  Days of drilling.  Or days spent doing little else but just being in uniform and performing military responsibilities associated with being a soldier.

But our interpretation of the soldier’s experience is heavily weighted to the battles. Those days are the “main events” which receive most of the attention.  After all, it was on those handful of days on which the war turned, right?  Well… perhaps those are the places in time where we can best demonstrate where the war turned.  There were other, more subtle, points where the war turned.  But the nature of those activities are somewhat complicated to get across in a fifteen minute tour stop… or even a 1000 word blog post.  How can one explain that THIS place…

Winter Encampment 070

… was one where the soldiers in the Army of the Potomac rested, refitted, and reorganized in a manner which propelled them to victory over 1864-5?  I don’t know, it took me the better part of four months blogging to discuss that aspect of the war.  And in case you are wondering, that’s the site of the Alexander house outside Culpeper, and where Colonel Charles Wainwright composed most of his diary entries during the winter of 1864.  (And Culpeper in particular offers a wealth of opportunities to offer “now” and “then” photography.  Because of the Winter Encampment of 1864, Culpeper became one of the most photographed localities of the war.)

Beyond just saying “this was a turning point” of sorts, is it not important to relate that the life of a soldier was not simply a series of engagements in mortal combat, fighting to the death on the battlefield?  Indeed.  And study of the “stuff outside of the battles” makes the whole somewhat richer and relative to us today.  The soldiers were not merely one-dimensional beings which existed during battle.  There were more facets to their experiences, some of which tied into the important themes of the war.

That said, I think it a positive that during the sesquicentennial we saw a lot of activities associated with these “off the battlefield” soldier activities.  Specific to the location pictured above, the Friends of Cedar Mountain and other organizations in Culpeper hosted a Winter Encampment Seminar during the winter of 2014, at the Germanna Community College campus just a few hundred yards removed from Wainwright’s quarters.  And later Friends of the Wilderness Battlefield hosted a tour of sites related to the 1864 Winter Encampment.   And those sesquicentennial events are just two handy references I can make (tied to the place pictured above).  Across the country, similar events, some hosted by the National Park Service or state organizations, but more so by local, grass-roots groups, showcased the “other than battle” experiences of the soldiers.

I think we should point out that emphasis as a “success” for the sesquicentennial.

On the other hand, we might also point out, for the sake of those bicentennialists to follow, many missed opportunities.  For all of the focus in late June and early July upon Adams County, Pennsylvania, the public-facing programming left out exactly how those armies got there.  Almost as if the soldiers were suspended in time at Chancellorsville, then magically re-appeared, somewhat worse for the wear, at Gettysburg.  That’s just one handy example.  I’m sure we could demonstrate a few more worth noting.  The point to push home here is, again, that the soldiers were not one-dimensional, and their experience was more than combat actions.

This is somewhat odd, I think, given the current trends with a lot of noise about “new military history.”  Shouldn’t historians be seeking out those interpretive opportunities to discuss the life of soldiers beyond the battlefields?   But we often see tours, especially those focused more on the “education” function over the general “entertainment” functions, that simply hit a set of battlefield sites….

And I’m picking out Kevin Levin’s recent tour, with a group of students tracing the story of the 20th Massachusetts from the fall of 1862 through summer 1863, out of convenience here.  I know Kevin’s not a “bugles and bayonets” type, and is genuinely interested in MORE than what regiment was on the right of the line at a particular phase of the battle.  So, I also am very sure that Kevin related more than just the raw details of the battles during that tour.  However, outside of the list of sites noted on his blog post, I don’t know what other stops were made on the way.  So  I stand to be corrected, if need be.

There was certainly ample material for a stop discussing the non-combat experience of the 20th Massachusetts.  The regimental history includes a full chapter on events during the winter of 1863 (though I’m not sure how accessible the Second Corps’ campsites are today, compared to those of the Eleventh and other corps).  There are some observations recorded by the 20th Massachusetts as they marched through Loudoun, so perhaps Gum Springs would offer a location to reflect upon those words. Or perhaps the reflection of soldiers at Edwards Ferry as they crossed the Potomac downstream of Balls Bluff, their first battle of the war.

Would such stops have been appropriate? Well, that’s one best left to the tour leader and determined by what stops fit within focus.  Sometimes logistics is the ultimate governing factor on stop selection.  But I would offer there are ample opportunity stops during our “on the field” tours to flesh out the soldiers with more than the “battle” experiences.  Yes, the monuments are great places to stop… but it is important to consider what happened between those monuments along the way.

However, that said, I think the activities witnessed during the sesquicentennial went a long way to bring attention to the non-combat experiences of the soldiers.  We can point to a rounded interpretation of the soldier experience as a success for the sesquicentennial… and one we can hand over to the bicentennialists to improve upon.

Sherman’s March, May 19, 1865: “And thus was completed the great circuit …”

Recording the march of 1st Division, Twentieth Corps for May 19, 1865, Major-General Alpheus Williams wrote:

May 19, after a march of fourteen miles, the division pitched tents upon the high ground above Holmes’ Creek, near Cloud’s Mills, within two miles of Alexandria.

VAMarch_May19

Today this area is part of a stand of townhouses named “Cameron Station” and Brenman’s Park.  (And as I write this, realization sets in that, while I’ve taken time to locate dozens of camp sites through Georgia and the Carolinas, I have not set down with wartime maps and sorted out where the rest of Sherman’s troops camped around Alexandria.  Someone has probably already documented those details.  If not, I shall in time!)

When he submitted his official report of the march up from North Carolina on May 27, Williams offered a summary of the movements of the 1st Division through the last half of the war.  Recall that Williams and the division had been part of Twelfth Corps, Army of the Potomac, in 1863.  The Twelfth, along with the Eleventh, rushed to Chattanooga in the fall of 1863.  They’d been consolidated into the Twentieth Corps as part of the reorganizations during the winter of 1864.  They fought as such during the Atlanta Campaign.  And they were among the four corps chosen to march on the Savannah Campaign, with Williams temporarily commanding the corps.  So Williams had a lot of ground to cover… in more ways than one.  I submit his summary as a good closing for my coverage of the Great March:

And thus was completed the great circuit made by this division within the last twenty months. From the banks of the Rapidan it was transferred, in September, 1863, to the Army of the Cumberland, through the States of Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Leaving Tennessee in May, 1864, it has marched in succession through Northern Alabama, through Georgia from its north line near Chattanooga to Savannah, including the State capital, through the center of South Carolina, circuitously from the rice-fields opposite Savannah to its northeastern angle near Cheraw, through the center and capital of North Carolina, through Southern Virginia and its conquered capital back to the precise spot it left a little over a year and a half ago. Such a happy return to familiar scenes after marches, labors, exposures, and events of such extent and magnitude might well occasion and excuse a manifestation of unusual enthusiasm and exultation among all ranks.

A lot had transpired in those twenty months.  A lot of marching.  A lot of difficult crossings.  A lot of fighting.  A lot of campfires.  And a fair number of nights in cold camps.  Two of the hardest years of the war.  And, as Williams alluded to, the men had returned to the point at which the war had started for many of them – Washington, D.C.

The troops would rest and refit for a few days after May 19.  Their last “march” would take them through Washington, D.C. on May 24 to camps north of the city.  This march was met with much more celebration than others on the “great circuit.”

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 47, Part I, Serial 98, pages 605-6.)