Virginians! Time to make a call, for the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefields

This post goes out to all readers in Virginia…. and to those who have relatives and friends in Virginia.

I bring to your attention a set of budget amendments – 363 #7s, 363 #8s, and
363 #12h – presently under consideration by the state legislature. Each of these carry the explanation:


This amendment directs DCR to make recommendations as to the potential suitability of Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain Battlefield as potential recreational areas or state or regional parks and report its findings to the House Appropriations and Senate Finance Committees by October 1, 2019.

These are “budget neutral” amendments that would direct the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to review options to create a park comprising of the Brandy Station and Cedar Mountain battlefields. In short, this would prompt a study which gets the proverbial foot in the door towards the creation of a battlefield park. And that’s something you’ve heard me campaign towards for some time.

The American Battlefields Trust has made it easy for Virginians to reach their representatives to express thoughts about these amendments, as well as a few others related to preservation efforts in our state. As the Trust says, a couple of phone calls of support could go a long way – both to getting to our goal of a battlefield park, for those two important battlefield, and for funding other state preservation projects.

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“…the bridges are always wider than the flood….”

I direct you to a short post from Harry Smeltzer, published yesterday.  The center piece of that post is this photo:

flood2

My friend, Bud Hall, took this picture earlier in the week.  You are looking at Ruffin’s Run.  Normally, it is a sleepy little stream that bisects the northern end of the Brandy Station battlefield.  Crossing at this bridge is Beverly’s Ford Road, an ancient path to… well Beverly’s Ford, an important crossing of the Rappahannock. And you are looking in the direction of the Rappahannock, which is not far beyond the distant tree line at the end of this road.  Ruffin’s Run flows from left to right in this view.  As you can see in this photo, the run is just returning to its banks having expanded out across the flood plain, showing just how strong and nasty it could be!

On the morning of June 9, 1863, Colonel Benjamin “Grimes” Davis lead his brigade down this very road (coming towards the camera).  It was here… well more accurately in that tree line in the distance… that the Gettysburg Campaign began when Davis’s men engaged Confederate pickets covering Beverly’s Ford.  Davis, however, would not return this way.  He was mortally wounded just a short way down the road (behind the photographer) that morning as the fighting unfolded.

Yet, that is just the “banner event” which one might link to this spot.  I run out of fingers and toes counting the number of times we read of Federal or Confederate troops passing this very road on the way to, or coming from, Beverly’s Ford.  And of course, during the winter of 1864, this was practically a highway with Federal troops moving to and fro within their winter encampment.  A simple blog post is not sufficient to detail this location’s pedigree.

And let us be thankful this spot is preserved and being maintained to within bounds of its historical appearance.  While we might quibble over the safety rails and width of the modern gravel road, lacking that it is from wagon ruts.  But we will agree this spot leaves the integrity of Ruffin’s Run and its floodplain.  No additional drainage is there to clear excess water from those spring and summer freshets.  That bottom land grows up wild.  The stream is as “untamed” as it was in 1863.  Thankfully, because preservationists thwarted attempts to convert this ground into a racetrack or office complex.  It’s battlefield.  And Grimes Davis would probably not have much trouble orienting himself, if brought to the spot over a century and a half after that fateful day.

Great, battlefield preserved…. greenspace… but what of it?  I’ll tell you what of it.  That nice ribbon of mud across the road is the stream talking to us.  That is a history lesson.  Put yourselves in the saddle as a trooper crossing Ruffin’s Run or any similar stream in the central Virginia Piedmont – say, as I offered to Harry, Stoneman’s raid at the time of Chancellorsville.  Just one heavy rain might surge that stream to overflow up past the banks and into the flood plain.  So from that ribbon of mud in the foreground out to the distant rise beyond, we are fording.  Fording a raging, angry stream which on the map is but a dashed line indicating a minor little flow.  Everything you own and possess will soon be wet… including the tender hind quarters that sits in that McClellan saddle.  While in good weather this crossing would barely get a passing consideration.  In bad weather, this is simply a bridge which… well… isn’t long enough.

There are some who’ll jump into the conversation about preservation to say, “you don’t really have to stand there in order to understand the battle.”  Maybe one can grasp the high level points by just looking at a map accompanying good prose.  But nothing, I would challenge, can ever replace the actual ground of the battlefield as a primary source.  And therefore, any historian who writes of a battle without actually becoming intimately familiar with the ground does so with feet firmly planted in thin air.

Now Harry closes with a wonderful quote from Rick Atkinson’s The Day of Battle, which I’ll likewise quote here (emphasis is Harry’s and mine):

In the land of theory…there is none of war’s friction. The troops are, as in fact they were not, perfect Tactical Men, uncannily skillful, impervious to fear, bewilderment, boredom, hunger, thirst, or tiredness. Commanders know what in fact they did not know…Lorries never collide, there is always a by-pass at the mined road-block, and the bridges are always wider than the flood. Shells fall always where they should fall.

We sometimes easily fall into the “wargamer” trap of thinking all battlefield occurrences can be distilled down to statistical probabilities with great certainties.  Folks will tell us how “morale” and “unit cohesion” should work based on nice, clean predictions, distilled into “factors.”  Or we will roll a pair of six sided die and consult a table to determine if the rains prevent unit movement.  The real world just doesn’t work that easily.  Every step is another contention, large or small, to be resolved.  Maybe the passage is eased by a bridge.  Or maybe the stream has flooded over the bridge and there simply is no way around save getting wet.  And that’s not just in war, mind you!

In my early days, I had the honor of serving on the staff of Brigadier General Herbert Lloyd.  The man carried around a book to record quotations.  And he offered a copy of that collection as professional reading material to all serving with him (I still have mine, in easy reach as I type).  A quote that General Lloyd passed along, which if it was not his own, sure sounded like such, went:

Battles will always be fought uphill, in the mud, with the sun and wind in your face, at a point where four map sheets come together.  There will be adversity, so prepare for it.

The lesson, which calls out from that muddy flood plain of Ruffin’s Run, is simply – adversity will always be there.  It’s knowing how different people adapt to meet that adversity which makes history a worthy course of study.

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.

“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.)