Hansbrough’s Ridge winter encampment site WILL be preserved!

Last week, Fredericksburg’s Free Lance-Star ran an article by Clint Schemmer, and concurrently run on their website, detailing efforts to preserve a Civil War site on Hansborough’s Ridge, in Culpeper County:

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Civil War Trust and others are working to save Hansbrough’s Ridge, a commanding rampart near Stevensburg that sheltered a big part of the Army of the Potomac in the bitter-cold winter of 1863-64. The site is a Virginia Historic Landmark.

The VOF board voted Thursday to give the trust a $250,000 grant toward preserving the 174-acre site, contingent on a conservation easement being placed on it. The property, which stretches from State Route 3 north almost to Cole’s Hill, includes incredibly well-preserved remnants of soldiers’ camps, field hospitals, defensive trenches and a signal station.

In addition to the VOF grant, a pledge from the American Battlefield Protection Program and the seller leave the Civil War Trust and other preservationists within a short reach of closing this deal.  Clint’s article states around $50,000 would be needed to reach the sale price.

Hansbrough’s Ridge is one of those “lesser known” and “off the beaten path” sites where one can actually SEE history in situ.  Specific to its “battlefield” status, significant action played out across Hansbrough’s Ridge during the battle of Brandy Station.   Later in the same year of the war, the ridge became the winter home for portions of the Army of the Potomac’s Second Corps.  From late December, 1863 through the first days of May, 1864, soldiers lived on the Hansbrough’s Ridge.  When they broke camp there, they marched southeast towards the Rapidan River and the infamous Wilderness of Central Virginia.  Those steps down Hansbrough’s Ridge were the first of the Overland Campaign.

What makes Hansborough’s Ridge so remarkable is, in part due to remoteness from populated sections of the county and also in part due to geology of the ridge, the campsite was left unchanged for decades.  As the article notes:

Virginia historians say they know of only one surviving place from the war’s Eastern Theater that is somewhat comparable. It’s the 41-acre Stafford County Civil War Park, which holds three earthen forts and the remains of winter huts that Union troops built to warm themselves in the winter of 1862–63, a transformative time that many called their army’s “Valley Forge.”

Similarly, the following winter was important to resting and refitting soldiers of the Army of the Potomac who had been fighting for two years, and to drilling new recruits.

“Pristine” is a word often overused, in my opinion, in regard to Civil War sites.  There are precious few sites that are, by definition, pristine.  I can say that Hansbrough’s Ridge is absolutely the closest I’ve seen to pristine in my forty years of visiting Civil War sites.  In my visits, I’ve seen hut sites … not rock piles that were hut sites… but the actual hut sites with the walls as clearly defined as the day the soldiers left.  Some of these localities were captured in wartime photographs, offering vital context to what we see on the ground today.

I’m hesitant to post a lot of photos of the site, pending closure and firm security of the site from trespassing.  But allow me to offer one:

HR WE Site 037

We know, based on accounts of the soldiers who stayed on Hansbrough’s Ridge, were those bricks likely came from.  But that’s just the “thread” to follow here.  It will bring us to the larger story of how those soldiers lived; what they experienced; and most importantly, why they spent a cold, lonely winter on a ridgetop in Virginia.

That story is not just one of artifacts or rock-piles, but the context of their presence.  There are other reminders – in place, mind you – that speak of the haste as the soldiers broke camp that spring.  All of which is why this is an important site to preserve.  This site needs to be studied – properly and professionally – not looted by those who would “relic hunt” thus removing context from the artifacts.  You see, it is the RIDGE itself, and not some solitary button or dropped musket ball, that will tell this story.  The whole RIDGE.

And with a broader vision, we consider the efforts to preserve Hansbrough’s Ridge in light of efforts to create a state park for Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields.  I can see a time when visitors can contemplate both battlefield and encampment while touring Culpeper’s Civil War sites.

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“Ransack a Historic Site” Weekened is what I call it

Ransacking.  What does that mean?

ran·sack
ˈranˌsak/
verb
past tense: ransacked; past participle: ransacked
  1. go hurriedly through (a place) stealing things and causing damage.

I say that word aptly fits a caption for photo:

RansackingBS1

The photo was taken on November 14 of last year.  The location is on the Brandy Station battlefield, at a site which I will not disclose.  The site is owned by a preservation organization and is not open to relic hunting or other similar activity.  The holes were left by a “digger” who felt the need to step onto posted, marked, and preserved land in order to “get a piece of history” to hold in their hand.

Coincidentally, on the same day at another place on the Brandy Station battlefield, I took this photo:

Brandy Station 011

I normally try to “frame out” people when taking photos of Civil War battlefields, for functional reasons (as those make better illustrations for blog posts).  But in this case, the subject was the individuals in the photo.  These were participants in the Diggin’ In Virginia (DIV) XXXII, held on November 13-15, 2015.  And as you can see in the foreground, the ground was giving up many long held secrets that day.

I cannot state for a fact that the individual who dug the preserved, posted area was involved with the DIV event. But the timing is far too coincidental for this to be random happenstance.  Furthermore it is not the first time that myself or others have noticed this sort of coincidental occurrence. Since many of the DIV participants look for “bragging rights” about their finds, there is some desire to show some exciting items retrieved from the ground.  So clearly there is motivation for some to go “off the reservation”, if I may, and loot areas that are not part of the event… not to mention legally off-limits.  But the nature of the event and the hobby is that those offenses are covered up (… perhaps the ONLY thing these people are likely to leave buried, ironically…).  Nobody wants to discuss the illegal aspects of the hobby.  Just much shouting about “nectar” retrieved where the machine registers a beep.

Earlier this winter, I was contacted by an individual asking for a “provenance” assessment on some artifacts.  The items included friction primers and a rifled projectile fragment of a particular type.  The individual didn’t want to disclose the exact location.  But the contact asked if I could confirm that a particular battery had a particular type of projectile at the battle of Brandy Station.  The writer was very excited at “the prospect of having a piece of history that could tell the story of the battle!”

With measured words, I responded. Because of the nature of the removal, those artifacts ceased to be artifacts at the moment of removal.  Period.  No matter how great and wonderful the item might be, it is no longer an artifact when its archaeological context is disturbed. Only if surveyed, documented, and analyzed in-situ, does it remain an artifact.  Anyone with a Archaeology 101 class behind them, or more than an hour watching “Oak Island” on the History Channel, knows this well.  Thus the story, which might have been teased out of those items when they were artifacts, was forever lost.  Irretrievably lost.  Any value of the items was as scrap metal, unless the owner attempt to “snake oil” a prospective buyer.

The other aspect of this, which has impact beyond just the value of what is now essentially scrap metal, is that the site itself was injured due to the ransacking.  The artifacts in the ground were components of the history that occurred on that ground.  When those of us mindful of history go to those sites with a mind to designate and preserve, we use those artifacts as the source material which validates other research.  All too often we are confronted with a conundrum… we know the site was important in an event such as a battle, but to prove such beyond doubt one needs to tie artifacts specifically to the event.  Otherwise, one might well say the battle happened over at … say… that fence row… or maybe at the other one.  Those sort of suppositions are best supported by documented archaeological surveys.  Unfortunately, without the artifacts, there is no story.  And without the benefit of supporting artifacts as sources, things such as National Register nominations, which would help secure matching grants for preservation, tend to go flat.

I bring all this up today for consideration for a reason.  In a couple of weeks, another DIV event will be held on the Brandy Station battlefield.  As before, the event is on private property (if you didn’t know, these events play on the margins in the legality of easements and such… but I’ll save that for another day).  While I cannot speak strongly enough about the damage the DIV events have done to ransack the history of Culpeper County, I also have to say there’s little I can do about it but complain.

But I would call upon the organizers and the leaders of the hobby to do more to police their own.  Scenes such as this should not occur:

RansackingBS2

That’s our shared history and heritage being ransacked (and in this particular case looting and trespassing to boot!).  The “hobby” should identify the individuals who perpetrate acts such as this and make very public examples of them.  But I’m not holding my breath… the is a hobby predicted on taking, no matter what the implications.  All I can say to those who participate in such is, “then please go prove me wrong.”  Name names.  Demonstrate where some punitive action is taken. Or provide evidence that will lead to prosecution where a crime occurs.

Better still, why not help preservation of these sites instead of ransacking … and thus sabotaging efforts those of us who want the stories to be told.

(Photos courtesy of Clark “Bud” Hall.)

“The most important hand-to-hand contest” of the war on Fleetwood Hill: Shock action of cavalry at Brandy Station

In previous installments about cavalry tactics, we’ve looked at the use of the saber and revolver.  Observers such as Alonzo Gray specifically cited these weapons for use in “shock action”.  We might say that shock attacks, delivered with either the saber or, less often in Gray’s assessment, revolver, were the most important offensive component to the mounted arm.  One might use the carbine to skirmish or develop an enemy position.  But it was with saber and/or revolver in hand that the cavalry would deliver its weight against an enemy battle line.

As we’ve seen, the revolver had some advantages in close combat, but the saber remained the preferred weapon from the American perspective.  Discussing the shock action, Gray wrote:

It will be noticed that the saber was the only weapon used for shock action except when the ground was unfavorable, such as a close or wooded country.  Under such conditions the revolver was substituted for the saber.  To secure favorable and decisive results a cavalry commander must make a quick decision and quickly take the initiative.  A timid cavalry leader will usually fail where a bold one will succeed.  In many cases a bold and sudden attack will result in small losses, and boldness will take the place of numbers.

We can apply this sage wisdom to a large number of battlefields from the Civil War.  Of those many battles to consider, Gray offered numerous examples from the fields of Culpeper County… of which no small number occurred on Fleetwood Hill.

Gray returned to Major Henry B. McClellan and The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart (page 277) for one vignette, specifically an account from Captain James F. Hart, commanding Hart’s South Carolina Battery:

The battery I commanded moved abreast of Hampton’s column in its gallop toward this new foe; and as we came near Fleetwood Hill, its summit, as also the whole plateau east of the hill and beyond the railroad, was covered with Federal cavalry. Hampton, diverging towards his left, passed the eastern terminus of the ridge, and, crossing the railroad, struck the enemy in column just beyond it.  This charge was as gallantly made and gallantly met as any the writer ever witnessed during nearly four years of active service on the outposts. Taking into estimation the number of men that crossed sabres in this single charge (being nearly a brigade on each side), it was by far the most important hand-to-hand contest between the cavalry of the two armies.  As the blue and gray riders mixed in the smoke and dust of that eventful charge, minutes seemed to elapse before its effect was determined.  At last the intermixed and disorganized mass began to recede, and we saw that the field was won to the Confederates.

An excellent quote selection by McClellan and later by Gray to illustrate the nature of the fighting.  For those who are not familiar with the flow of battle at Brandy Station, June 9, 1863, the charge Hart described was part of the action to drive Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s division off Fleetwood Hill.  Such was the crescendo of combat for the day.  And what we see here, in terms of shock action by cavalry, is a textbook case.  The charge hit the Federals on the hill and drove them off by close, hand-to-hand action.

McClellan prefaced his presentation of Hart’s words with some clarification, “I transcribe the following from Major J.F. Hart’s narrative, premising only that the charge which he so graphically describes was made… by the 1st North Carolina Cavalry, supported by the Jeff Davis Legion….”  However, that is not to say those two formations from Brigadier-General Wade Hampton’s brigade were the only ones involved with that “gallantly made” charge.  Gray also cites the report of Colonel Pierce M.B. Young, commanding Cobb’s Legion, also part of Hampton’s Brigade:

About 12 a.m. I received information through one of General Stuart’s aides, that his headquarters were in great danger of being captured by a large body of the enemy, which had gotten in the rear. I immediately moved up in the direction of General Stuart’s headquarters, when General Hampton ordered me to move forward at a gallop, and engage the enemy to his front and right. After moving about a mile at almost a full run, I began to ascend the hill upon which were General Stuart’s headquarters. The general sent me the second aide, saying that his headquarters were in possession of the enemy, and desired that I should clear the hill.

About this time a regiment of the enemy, which was supporting one of their batteries near General Stuart’s headquarters, swept down the hill, charging my front. I immediately ordered the charge in close columns of squadrons, and I swept the hill clear of the enemy, he being scattered and entirely routed. I do claim that this was the turning point of the day in this portion of the field, for in less than a minute’s time the battery would have been upon the hill, and I leave it to those whose province it is to judge to say what would have been the result had the battery gained its destination. We killed and captured 60 of the enemy, utterly routing him, with but little loss to ourselves. Among the captured were several commissioned officers, including the lieutenant-colonel.

Examining the nature of shock action of cavalry, we see another account describing the same charge.  Gray did note that Young’s account implied the use of Poinsett’s 1841 drill – close column of squadrons in the charge.

Of course, there is a Federal side to this also.  And they were likewise delivering their shock action to the Confederates on Fleetwood Hill.  Gregg reported:

The country about Brandy Station is open, and on the south side extensive level fields, particularly suitable for a cavalry engagement. Coming thus upon the enemy, and having at hand only the Third Division (total strength 2,400), I either had to decline the fight in the face of the enemy or throw upon him at once the entire division. Not doubting but that the Second Division was near, and delay not being admissible, I directed the commanders of my advance brigade to charge the enemy, formed in columns about Brandy House. The whole brigade charged with drawn sabers, fell upon the masses of the enemy, and, after a brief but severe contest, drove them back, killing and wounding many and taking a large number of prisoners. Other columns of the enemy coming up, charged this brigade before it could reform, and it was driven back. Seeing this, I ordered the First Brigade to charge the enemy upon the right. This brigade came forward gallantly through the open fields, dashed upon the enemy, drove him away, and occupied the hill. Now that my entire division was engaged, the fight was everywhere most fierce. Fresh columns of the enemy arriving upon the ground received the vigorous charges of my regiments, and, under the heavy blows of our sabers, were in every instance driven back.

We see from reading accounts from both sides of the line that on June 9, 1863 Fleetwood Hill witnessed some of the most important “shock action” charges of the war.  That’s not my hyperbole.  It is derived from the words of the men who were there, mind you.  Indeed, we should study the action on Fleetwood Hill with this importance in mind.

And how best to study that action?  From the very ground it was fought across.

IMG_3116

And you and I can walk that ground and consider the actions… thanks to the successful acquisition of Fleetwood Hill by Civil War Trust and partners in 2013.  In fact, on next Monday, October 26, the Trust officially “cuts the ribbon” on Fleetwood Hill and will show off the new interpretive trail over that most historic topographic prominence.

(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 34-35;  Henry B. McClellan, The Life and Campaigns of Major General JEB Stuart, Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1885, pages 276-7; OR, Series I, Volume 27, Part I, Serial 43, page 950; and Part II, Serial 44, page 732.)

“By fours, right about wheel” and a landscape lost: Loss of Hansbrough Ridge – 1863 and 2015

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working up to what Alonzo Gray called the “shock action” of cavalry when using the saber, and occasionally the revolver.  Before breaking down this shock action, as described by Gray, in more detail, allow me to pull up one of his examples… as it is timely to events occurring this very day in regard to preservation.

Readers know well the events of June 9, 1863.  Often our focus is, for good reason, on the fighting that took place from Beverly’s Ford to Fleetwood Hill.  That is the heart of the battlefield.  But the fighting around Stevensburg was no less violent or deadly.   On the morning of the battle, Colonel Alfred Duffié led the Second Cavalry Division, about 2,000 strong, from Kelly’s Ford towards Stevensburg. His orders were to cover the flank of Brigadier-General David M. Gregg’s main force.

Contesting Duffié’s advance was Colonel Mathew C. Butler, with the 2nd South Carolina Cavalry.  To protect the road to Culpeper (and hold the screen in front of Confederate infantry), Butler initially placed one squadron on Hansbrough Ridge.  When Duffié’s force arrived at the ridge, Butler rushed forward Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hampton, brother of Brigadier-General Wade Hampton, and a detachment of troopers.  When arriving at Stevensburg, Frank Hampton pushed out and posted dismounted troopers across the ridge in front of Salubria, a colonial era plantation house which still stands today.

The presence of this dismounted line, reinforced later by the 4th Virginia Cavalry, under Colonel Williams Wickham, caused some delay of Duffié’s already painfully slow advance. In spite of the cautious stance, the troopers in Duffié’s First Brigade gained a lodgement on the ridge.  (This occuring about the same time that Gregg’s column was closing on Fleetwood Hill.)  To blunt this push, the Confederates were about to reset their lines.   However, just as a column was wheeling to form, the Federals charged down the road and over the ridge with devastating affect.  Major Henry B. McClellan later wrote, in The Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart:

Lieutenant Broughton informed Adjutant Moore that he delivered a message from Colonel Hampton to Colonel Wickham to the effect that he (Hampton) would close back upon the 4th [Virginia] regiment so as to make a charge in solid column.  At this moment the rear of the 4th regiment was emerging upon the road from the woods, and the order “By fours, right about wheel,” was heard.  Whether this command was given by Colonel Hampton to execute the movement contemplated in the message delivered by Lieutenant Broughton, or whether it was given by some officer of the 4th regiment so as to bring the faces of his men toward the enemy, is entirely uncertain.  The result was most unfortunate.  Captain Chestnut and Lieutenant Rhett, at the head of Hamtpon’s men, remained facing the enemy, to conceal, if possible, a movement which they felt must bring an attack upon them at once. But the enemy saw the wheel, and instantly ordered the charge.  Colonel Hampton again ordered the right about wheel, and placed himself at the head of his men; but it was of no avail.  In a moment they were swept to the side of the road, and the full force of the charge fell upon the 4th Virginia.  Colonel Hampton, while engaging one of the enemy with his sabre, was shot through the body by another, and was mortally wounded.  He succeeded in reaching the house of John S. Barbour, west of Stevensburg, where he died that night.

I would submit this as the “vetted” Confederate version of events, carefully reconstructed by McClellan after the war.  Though I would point out that others, particularly Wade Hampton, had more pointed views of the actions that took place along the road over Hansbrough Ridge.

However, let us set aside for another day the blame for Frank Hampton’s death.  Instead, for our purposes of discussing cavalry tactics, let us take this as an example submitted by Alonzo Gray of “shock action” by cavalry.  In this case, a charge by the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry landed squarely upon the Confederates and opened the road to Stevensburg.  Such offered a great opportunity for Duffié, which he never picked up.  Duffié might have uncovered the presence of Confederate infantry.  Or he might have rushed to support the attacks on Fleetwood Hill.  Or both!  The battle… if not an entire military operation, which we would later know as “The Gettysburg Campaign”…  might have turned on actions taken at that moment at that ground where the road to Culpeper passed over Hansbrough Ridge.

But it didn’t.

And for us to really take into consideration the particulars – the opportunities and beyond to why those opportunities were left on the ground – we need to head to that ground.  Unfortunately, this is what we have to consider today:

VA3 widening1

This view looks down Virginia Highway 3, to the west towards Stevensburg, as it passes over Hansbrough Ridge.  The area where Frank Hampton was mortally wounded is just past the telephone pole.  The exposed earth is the result of widening efforts by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).  I’ve mentioned (and complained) about this in earlier posts.  The widening was, unfortunately, pushed through.

And there is a serious problem with this operation.  Under a Memorandum of Agreement, of which I retain an unsigned copy, VDOT operates this project with several stipulations in place.  One of which is:

In the event that a previously unidentified archaeological resource is discovered during ground-disturbing activities associated with the construction of the Project, the VDOT, in accordance with Section 107.16(d) of the VDOT’s Road and Bridge Specifications, shall require the construction contractor to halt immediately all construction work involving subsurface disturbance in the area of the resource and in the surrounding areas where additional subsurface remains can be reasonably expected to occur.  Work in all other areas of the Project may continue.

I’ve visited this site a couple times in the last few weeks.  Others I know have visited the site.  And each of us have made the same comment – there are artifacts being exposed, dug-up, and disrupted by the work.  I also hear that now “relic hunters” are now scavenging the work area when the contractor is not on site.  For that reason, I’m not going to pass along details of what I’ve seen.

You might counter that neither myself or the “relic hunters” are authorities in regard to archaeological findings.  Well that’s my point.  Implied with the MOA there is supposed to be an authority to determine what, if anything, is being uncovered.  This road has seen human activity since colonial times (and likely even before then).  Significant activity, in addition to what I’ve mentioned for June 9, 1863, occurred at this spot during the Civil War.  Indeed, it would be impossible for no artifacts lay by this road.  It’s even possible that human remains lay beside this road.

So why isn’t there an observer on site during work hours to determine what exactly the spades and shovels are uncovering?

Cold steel or hot lead? Saber and revolver for the cavalry in close combat

NOTEThis post was badly edited upon first publication.  The error was due to cutting and pasting of portions for serialized postings.  I’ve revised the post to provide the desired sequencing of Gray’s conclusions instead of Whittaker’s, which were intended for the follow up post.  Sorry for the confusion caused by the clean up.

Going into combat, the infantryman had his musket and bayonet.  One weapon with two different modes of use.

The artilleryman had his cannon.  One weapon with several types of projectiles for different purposes.

But the cavalryman might, if he was properly equipped, go into battle with a carbine, a revolver, and a saber.  (Let’s not go crazy and mention the lances, however).

This array of weapons was due to the varying roles the cavalry was called upon to perform.  A carbine was preferred for picket duty or skirmishing.  But for up close fighting, the revolver and saber were preferred.  Though I would point out the commander’s preference tended to play into the selection of saber and revolver.

Each of these weapons (fine throw in the lance too) had a different set of drills. And by extension, each had a particular set of tactics that a commander might employ those drills against.  From the non-cavalryman’s view, I would argue this made the cavalry seem disorderly at some level.  Again, the infantry, with their one basic weapon, had a common set of drills.  How many ways can you load a cannon?  But the cavalry trooper had all those “schools” to learn about sabers, pistols, and carbines.  So some perceptions, well-founded or not, took hold:

Cavalry-whatIDo

Even today, you mention cavalry and images of gleaming sabers come to the mind’s eye.   After all, doesn’t everyone want to be on the horse at full gallop swinging that big edged weapon around?

But we read, in most discussions centered on tactics, that the saber was used less during the Civil War compared with earlier wars.  However, examining the source material we find the saber was still often employed in the melee.  In his study of Cavalry Tactics, Captain Alonzo Gray opened Chapter I with a discussion of the revolver and saber when used for close combat.  He took up the question as to when should each be used.  Quite number of the actions Gray called upon occurred on June 9, 1863 around Brandy Station, Virginia.

Gray starts with mention of Colonel Williams Wickham and actions near Stevensburg:

Colonel Wickham and a few of his men threw themselves into a field on the roadside, and by the fire of their pistols checked further pursuit.

I’m less inclined to call this a successful use of pistols in the close melee, as we know this occurred at a time after the 4th Virginia Cavalry broke, and which General Wade Hampton blamed the loss of his brother Lieutenant-Colonel Frank Hampton.  The Federals didn’t press this to advantage, so it’s hard to say the selection of the revolver made much difference.  And I’d argue that Wickham’s “stand” really was not much of a stand to begin with, being more of a fleeting rally.

Further into the discussion, Gray offered examples of individual combat between those armed with sabers and others armed with revolvers.  Staying at the Stevensburg sector:

Colonel [Frank] Hampton, while engaging one of the enemy with his saber, was shot through the body by another, and mortally wounded.

And one, from another sector of the battlefield that had immediate and important implications on the fight (and I’d argue also on the campaign which followed):

Perceiving his danger, Colonel [B.F.] Davis turned upon Allen with a cut of his saber, which [Lieutenant R.O.] Allen avoided by throwing himself on the side of his horse; at the same moment he fired and Colonel Davis fell.

In that instance, along Beverly’s Ford Road, the initiative slipped out of the hands of the Federals. All by way of a single pistol shot.

But back from the historical implications here, what does this say about the tactics, drill, and weapons employed?  Wryly, do we say “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight?”  Well it is not that clean a cut… if I may turn a pun.

Further along in the discussion, after turning to other actions on other battlefields, Gray cited instances where the saber’s shock effect was of great value in the melee.  Among those cited vignettes, Gray circles back to Brandy Station.  This time, we go to Fleetwood Hill with the attack of General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s brigade, singling out the 1st Maine Cavalry:

They outnumbered us three to one, but could not withstand the heavy saber blows of the sturdy men of Maine, who rode through them and over them, gained the hill, captured a battle-flag and many prisoners, among them the rebel General Stuart’s adjutant-general. From this moment the fight was one series of charges, every regiment of the brigade charging, rallying, and again charging until ordered to retire.

Granted, we must take Kilpatrick’s report with salt.  But in defense of Gray’s selection, the other quotes used for Brandy Station came from Major H.B. McClellan’s Life and Campaigns of Major General J.E.B. Stuart, written after the war.  I get the impression Gray was reaching for some account from what one can argue was the largest cavalry melee of the war, and came up with but Kilpatrick’s account to use for his point.  What we can agree upon, having access to a wider range of source materials than Gray had in 1910, is that the saber was used to good effect by both sides on Fleetwood Hill that day.  Indeed, both sides mounted saber charges and counter charges… with ultimately the victory going to the side that charged last.

At the end of his discussion of sabers and pistols, Gray concluded:

It will be seen from the next chapter that during the War of the Rebellion, the same as for centuries past, the saber was essentially a weapon for shock action. During the thick of the melee it was still to be preferred; but when the melee began to dissolve into individual combats the saber was or should have been exchanged for the revolver…. In the individual combat the revolver will be the winner in almost every case.  If the trooper is expert in its use, he has nothing to fear from an individual enemy armed with a saber.

In the end, Gray did not claim the saber was obsolete.  Rather that each weapon had a role and place… and should be retained.

Put this in context.  Those words were published in 1910, just years before the trenches of the Western Front with their barbed wire and machine guns.  Now we might wave that aside as backwards thinking at a time when technology had eclipsed the tactics of old.  Maybe cast a few jokes at Gray’s expense….

But, the cavalry and their sabers remained on the battlefield… and in some cases were employed with effect.

March 30, 1918.  Cited as the last saber charge of World War I, Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew’s C Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse “moved” the Germans at Moreuil Wood with their sabers.  They payed a steep price to blunt a German offensive.  Nobody, including Gray, ever said cavalry charges were cheap, bloodless affairs.

(Citations from Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, pages 16-22, 25.)

Cavalry Retiring by Successive Formations: Brandy Station, October 11, 1863

Yes, that is not a typo.  There was a battle at Brandy Station on October 11, 1863.  It was the third major action on Fleetwood Hill that year.  If you recall, I wrote about this particular action during the sesquicentennial.  At that time, I put focus on the actions by Brigadier-General John Buford’s First Cavalry Division… for many good reasons.  But I want to return to that day to discuss the activities of another Federal formation.

In his Cavalry Tactics, Alonzo Gray included a section discussing “Retiring by Successive Formations.” One of the citations used to illustrate such tactical maneuvers was from the official report of Brigadier-General Henry E. Davies, Jr. on the October 11 actions at Brandy Station.  Davies commanded First Brigade, Third Cavalry Division.  Davies’ brigade paired with the Second Brigade, under Brigadier-General George A. Custer, to constitute Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Third Cavalry Division. Davies’ brigade consisted of the 2nd and 5th New York Cavalry, 18th Pennsylvania Cavalry, and the 1st West Virginia Cavalry.  In addition, Davies had Battery E, 4th US Artillery, under Captain Samuel Elder, assigned in support.

Let me skip some of the normal background I’d offer in regard to the “big picture” relating to this action, hoping you click the link to the earlier blog post.  Instead let me look to Davies’ brigade, as reported, did on that day.  Morning of October 11 found the brigade near James City were it had maintained a picket line.  They’d screened the Army of the Potomac’s withdrawal towards Culpeper.  With those formations clearing Culpeper, it was time for Kilpatrick’s cavalry to follow.  Davies started that morning by splitting his command.  The 1st West Virginia marched north to Sperryville in order to cover approaches to Culpeper from the west.  The remainder of the command fell back back on the main road to Culpeper.

Davies’ main force reached the Court-House without incident.  But hearing the West Virginians had encountered Confederates, he dispatched the 5th New York in support.

These two regiments, commanded by Major [John] Hammond [5th New York], attacked the enemy and drove him back, then retired slowly toward Culpeper Court-House, bringing off in safety the infantry that had been left on the road.

I would pause to raise this question – what does “slowly retired” look like?  Roll that around for a bit, while we continue….

While waiting on the return of those two regiments, Davies sent a squadron of the 2nd New York back down the road towards James City to “reconnoiter the road.”  This force soon ran into a large body of Confederate cavalry and lost two officers.

First Sergeant Barker, of Company A, then took command of the squadron, and by a vigorous charge broke through the rebel lines, brought in the whole command with a loss of but 5 men. For his gallantry and good conduct on this occasion, Sergeant [Lewis] Barker merits the praise of his officers, and he has shown himself eminently deserving of promotion, for which he has been recommended by the commanding officer of his regiment.

With that skillful extraction, Barker was able to fall back to the protection of Davies’ main body and the artillery.  But clearly it was time for the Federals to resume their withdrawal, as Davies recorded:

After passing through Culpeper Court-House, under the direction of the general commanding division, I fell back toward Brandy Station, having the right of the road, the Second Brigade being on the left. My rear was brought up by the Second New York, with their skirmishers thrown to the rear, firing and then retiring, my right flank protected by the First Vermont Cavalry, Colonel [Edward] Sawyer, who had been temporarily attached to my command. The enemy followed me very closely, skirmishing heavily with my rear guard, which, however, held its ground well, and did not give back an inch except when ordered.

Sure, nobody gives ground in their official reports.  Right?  But the tactical situation deteriorated rapidly at that point.

On nearing Brandy Station we found the enemy had got between us and General Buford’s command, and the Second Brigade was advanced to the front to charge. As they went forward I placed a section of my battery in position and opened fire on the enemy, who fell back before the Second Brigade toward my right flank.

Let’s pause again for a moment and consider how Kilpatrick was attempting to fight his division at that point in the action. Kilpatrick’s report simply alluded to having Davies on the right and Custer on the left.  But what Davies’ account implies is that First Brigade, plus Elder’s guns, took up a supporting position while Second Brigade made the initial assault.  The point I’d make here is that Kilpatrick approached the initial situation with a “hold with one brigade and jab with the other” maneuver.

But beyond that, this was not exactly a clean cut “textbook” situation as things were falling apart all around the line and to the rear.  Davies pushed out the 1st Vermont to his right, with the 18th Pennsylvania in support, to make another charge.  Then the 2nd New York mounted a charge on Confederates pressing the Brigade’s rear.   And while those charges were ongoing, to the front, Buford’s command was coming to Kilpatrick’s assistance.  Davies, from his point of view, recorded:

All of these movements I am happy to say were most successful, and we repulsed the rebels at every point, and in another moment my battery, supported by the Fifth New York, had followed in the road cut out by the Second Brigade, and gained a position of comparative safety where it could be of assistance to me.

Again, pause to think about the movements.  The 5th New York and the artillery had maintained a base that allowed at least three separate charges by other regiments in the brigade.  Furthermore, if we give weight to Davies’ account, that base supported the Second Brigade’s attacks.  Though in my opinion, most of the credit for the breakout should go to Buford’s troopers.

In these such tactical actions, an open escape route is half the solution. The unit still has to extract itself.  With three regiments (including the attached Vermonters) recalling from charges, Davies had to use the West Virginia regiment to form another base behind which the others could rally.  Behind this second base, Davies worked to move his command to safety, “… a description of the engagement is hardly practicable, as it consisted of a series of gallant charges made wherever the enemy appeared, in a manner that proved both the individual gallantry and the thorough discipline of our troops.”

Extracted from encirclement, Davies’ troopers were still not free.  The action continued even after their escape:

My battery, under Captain Elder, was posted on my right flank and rear, and pouring shot and shell into the enemy’s ranks, contributed in a great degree to our success. At one time the enemy attempted to charge the battery in flank, but the support, a battalion of the Fifth New York, under Major White, charged gallantly to the rescue and drove them back with heavy loss. After this I received orders to retain my command behind the line of the Second Brigade and reform them; which was done, and I then held a position under cover of which the Second Brigade withdrew and again took up position near the river.

It was the later part of this passage that Gray cited in his section on “Retiring by Successive Formations.”   What we see in that passage is again Kilpatrick using his division in two elements – one forms a base while the other maneuvers.  Unlike the earlier maneuvers during the breakout, Kilpatrick’s command was withdrawing under pressure.  So instead of charging, they were withdrawing to the rear behind the safety of a line formed by the other brigade – leapfrog in reverse.

Returning to the morning operations, recall again my question of what “slowly retired” looked like.  I’d submit it would resemble the retirement of brigades, only at a smaller level with squadrons or whole regiments.  Indeed we see a pattern to the maneuvers of Davies’ command throughout the day.  There always seems to be a “base” providing support for a “maneuver” element.  Such was the case with the actions around Culpeper, later with the breakout, and at the end of the day beyond Fleetwood Hill.

Successive movements were a common fundamental for cavalry tactics.  Such were employed from the smallest formations to the largest.  In order to maneuver in formation, a force of cavalry needed some relatively secure space to “form” and prepare.  The base force provided such.  And likewise once the maneuver force reached an objective – be that in the attack or withdrawal – it could set as a base to allow the other portion to maneuver.

The use of successive movements appears in modern military tactics in the form of bounding maneuvers, also conducted from the smallest to the largest formations.

I submit that if Davies or Buford (though some might question Kilpatrick…) were around today, they’d easily recognize the intent of a mechanized infantry or armored cavalry force using “bounding overwatch.”

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 48, Part I, Serial 48, pages 385-6.)

Culpeper Battlefields Park update – gaining acceptance, momentum

Since the start of July, several articles and editorials have appeared in area newspapers in regard to the Culpeper Civil War Battlefield Park proposal.  All voices are positive in regard to the initiative.  The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star ran an editorial on July 15 which concluded:

At a time when the nation is reassessing how to view and understand the Civil War and its symbols, the stories of sacrifice of American lives cannot be forgotten. Opening historic sites to the public at Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain is the right thing to do.

Just this weekend, the Culpeper Star-Exponent quoted Civil War Trust Policy and Communications Director, Jim Campi:

“If you have a state battlefield park here in the center of Virginia, it would be like Sailor’s Creek on steroids,” Campi said, referring to the battlefield state park in Prince Edward County. “Culpeper really is the epicenter of the Civil War; so much happened here. Even when they weren’t fighting here, they were marching across Culpeper County… all the encampments and the battles. You really can’t tell the story of the Civil War without the story of what happened in Culpeper.”

These are strong statements indicative of the support the idea has received even with the public discussion at an early stage.  For those of us who have carried, for many years, this idea for a Brandy Station and Ceder Mountain park these articles are music to our ears.  Earlier when blogging about having public discussions about a park, I had low expectations.  But the response has exceeded those by yards if not miles.  Furthermore, though I’ve been quiet about this on the blogging side, I find myself every day engaged on the “Culpeper Front” in ways large and small.

When this park comes to be (and I don’t think it is an “if” at this point, but a “when”), we will once again see how public interpretation – specifically markers – have helped build interest, awareness, and support.  Much as the comparison made to Resaca back in May.  (And I would point out the release of the Brandy Station Battle App is a further advancement along that same avenue of approach but in a digital instead of physical format).

Indeed, the Culpeper Battlefields Park, when it comes to fruition, will inherit a wealth of interpretive exhibits, most of which were written by experts on the battle and produced by the professional Virginia Civil War Trails and Civil War Trust teams.  The current interpretive system (including the soon to be in place interpretation on Fleetwood Hill) will cover nearly every need the park might want.  Well, save perhaps a few subjects – such as the USCT crossing at Kelly’s Ford at the start of the Overland Campaign and the passage of Sherman’s troops at the end of the war.  It is a fine system that any park manager would boast of on the first day of operation.

One physical element currently missing, of course, is a formal visitor center.  There are some who have mentioned the use of the Graffiti House as a new park visitor center. That would be a mistake, in my opinion. The house is not in condition to support the foot traffic that will come into the park. It would need extensive, expensive structural work. Nor is it the  place that visitors need to begin their visit (being on the wrong side of the tracks, literally). Furthermore, the real treasure of the Graffiti House is the surviving markings from the war which deserve preservation.  Needed improvements to make a visitor center would detract from that preservation. Unless something akin to what was done for Blenheim in Fairfax – a visitor center  separate from the historic structure – is completed, the graffiti would be at risk.

And such a separate visitor center would essentially mean the Graffiti House would be an exhibit and not the visitor center proper.  At that point, why place a visitor center in a place where visitors will need to traverse a busy highway in order to see what most are looking for? There are many places which could better serve as a temporary visitor center, assuming the state would prefer, as done at other battlefield parks, to build a purpose build visitor center with museum at some point in the future.  Besides, we are getting way ahead of ourselves in planning where to park the buses.

One last point I’d make, which has been voiced in the articles to date is with the operations and maintenance of the proposed park.  As the Culpeper Star-Exponent article this week mentioned, “To expedite the proposal, the [Civil War Trust] is willing to continue to manage the properties for several years after the land transfer, enabling the state to focus its energies and resources on launching the park…”

Some have alluded to the cost of running a new park as a negative in the park effort.  Indeed the Virginia State Park system, as with many across the country, is at best “just” funded in terms of operations budget.  The gracious offer by the Trust will allow some time for the state to work out the particulars to ensure the park is properly staffed and supported.

Although there are a lot of details in the air and a lot of issues to be worked out, the notion of a Culpeper Battlefields Park has gained acceptance and picking up momentum.  The reality of such a park is not far away!