For the holidays, lets each rehabilitate some Civil War general… I call Schimmelfennig!

This being the season of giving, I ask what have we given back to the Civil War field of study?  We all “take” from our studies – reading primary and secondary sources, walking the battlefields, and receiving knowledge all around.   But what do we give back in return?  How this season we “clean up” some corner of Civil War study that need be straightened or otherwise put in order?

Consider… Throughout the Sesquicentennial discussions we heard about some major figures from the Civil War being “rehabilitated” by historians.  Most notable is George B. McClellan.  We even heard mention of Joe Hooker.  Though I still lean towards strict twelve step process for Little Mac… someone skipped a few steps with McClellan in my opinion.  This is not a new notion for historians.  During the Centennial, US Grant was “rehabilitated” to some degree, mostly by that magical prose from Bruce Catton.  William T. Sherman was moved but a few shades to the good side of Lucifer himself.  Though we really should recognize the work of British admirers decades earlier, who sort of threw a mirror in our American faces.  However of late Grant is being “un-rehabilitated” back to a mere mortal.

What I have in mind is straight forward and altruistic – pick a figure due “historical rehabilitation.”  Name any figure from the Civil War – general, politician, or other.  Pick a poor figure.  Someone you think has not gotten a fair shake through the historians’ collective pens. Then offer up a few paragraphs explaining why this figure is worth a second look.  Think about it… are there any persons who are completely nonredeemable?  Totally incompetent? Without any merit?  Well… maybe there are some.  But I’d submit that to be a small number within the larger sample set.  Besides, even H. Judson Kilpatrick, Alfred Pleasonton, and Franz Sigel had good days to speak of!

I’ll make the first offering.  This is my target for rehabilitation:

Alexander Schimmelfennig.  Like most, my introduction to Schimmelfennig was the butt end of many jokes about “hiding with the hogs” at Gettysburg.  Schimmelfennig’s stay at the Henry Garlach house has come to epitomize the failings and faults of the Eleventh Corps in the battle.

Over the years, I’ve learned not to add an extra n, making his name an active present tense verb, to Schimmelfennig. Though you might find more than a few cases where I’ve slipped and not corrected.  Furthermore, I’ve come to recognize my characterization of Schimmelfennig’s actions were but one of many collective misunderstandings (being kind… maybe collective ignorance?) about the actions at Gettysburg.  Indeed, our myopic view of that battle has caused no short list of misconceptions.  Schimmelfennig is one of many receiving short treatment, and outright insult, due to the intellectual white elephant, named Gettysburg, stuck to history’s charge.

Let us first be fair about Schimmelfennig at Gettysburg.  Certainly his July 1, 1863 on the field is not fodder for any great story about military prowess and proficiency.  Though it was not an example of bumbling incompetence.  Why was he in the Garlach back yard to start with?  Well it was because, unlike many of his peers and superiors, he was not emulating General Gates’ flight from Camden in search of “high ground” south of town.

And in the two years that followed that stay in the shed, Schimmelfennig demonstrated he was indeed a very capable field commander… in the oft overlooked Department of the South.  I’ve chronicled those activities during the Sesquicentennial… and will mention a few key points here.   Schimmelfennig first went to the department as part of Brigadier-General George Gordon’s 1st Division, Eleventh Corps, sent as reinforcements in late July 1863. The Brigadier-General led a successful demonstration in February 1864 on John’s Island; assumed responsibility for the front against Charleston through the spring and early summer 1864, directing several bombardments of Fort Sumter, and mounting demonstrations to aid the main operations elsewhere;  And played an important role in Foster’s July 1864 “demonstration” that nearly broke through to Charleston.   After returning from leave (recovering from malaria), Schimmelfennig was in command of the forces that captured Charleston on February 18, 1865.

Schimmelfennig readily adapted to situations and was innovative.  He successfully used of Hales rockets in an assault role and urged the troops to use rudimentary camouflage to disguise their activities.  To the many USCT regiments in his command, he offered fair and complementary leadership, advocating for pay equality.  The naval officers working with him, particularly Rear Admiral John Dahlgren, considered Schimmelfennig the better of the Army generals to work with at Charleston.

And we should remember, as if a name like Schimmelfennig would allow us to forget, that the general was not American-born.  Thus he faced much of the institutional bias within the Federal officer corps.  Schimmelfennig, a Prussian, was a veteran of the revolutions and wars of 1848.  Pulling on our historian sensibilities, Schimmelfennig was a bit of a military historian himself, providing context to the conflicts between Russia and Turkey in the years leading up to the Crimean War.

Oh, and I should add, Schimmelfennig “pioneered” the use of petrochemicals to ward off mosquitoes…. Um… by smearing kerosene over his exposed skin while on duty at Folly and Morris Islands.  Not exactly DEET, but you know.  Fine… he was a bit far short of a renaissance man.

At any rate, you get my point – Schimmelfennig’s service is done a dis-service by overly emphasizing those three days in July 1863… or even after weighing in his (and the Eleventh Corps) performance at Chancellorsville months before.  Maybe he was not among Grant’s Generals depicted in Balling’s painting, but Schimmelfennig served with distinction during the war.  He is at least deserving of more consideration than “a brigade commander at Gettysburg.”

That’s my proposed target for rehabilitation.  What’s yours?  And why?

“Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls”: Grim assessment from Governor MacGrath

Andrew Gordon MacGrath was among the leading secessionists in 1860.  Having resigned his position as a US District Court Judge after the 1860 elections, he played a role in the South Carolina secession convention.  Later he served briefly as the state’s Secretary of State.  And when the Confederacy was formally established, MacGrath was for all practical purposes re-instated to his judgeship, though for a “C.S.” instead of a “U.S.” district. At a rather ominous moment in the state’s, and the Confederacy’s, history, on December 18, 1864, the South Carolina General Assembly named MacGrath the Governor of South Carolina.

Within days of MacGrath’s assumption of the office, Savannah fell.  And the Federal forces there were poised to move into South Carolina next.  As his predecessor, MacGrath appealed to President Jefferson Davis in Richmond for assistance.   On Christmas Day, 1864, he sent a lengthy letter, by way of Colonel Henry Buist, to the Confederate president.  After opening pleasantries, MacGrath put in perspective what the loss of Savannah meant to South Carolina:

The fall of Savannah has, of course, very much affected the people of this State. The question which naturally presents itself is, why the force which penetrated Georgia cannot penetrate South Carolina. And at this moment it is not an unwillingness to oppose the enemy, but a chilling apprehension of the futility of doing so, which affects the people. I am endeavoring, and I will remove that chill and dispel that apprehension; but upon you must I rely for that material aid which will assist the people of the State to make good their determined opposition. As rapidly as it can be done I am reorganizing the militia; its effective force I cannot yet estimate–I hope larger than has been supposed. If you will send us aid (although for the moment it falls short of effectual aid), if it be that aid which now foreshadows other aid to come, that spirit can be vitalized which when aroused to a certain extent supplies the place of numbers, and is of itself strength.

So, after over three years of war at its doorsteps, South Carolina’s militia was still unorganized for defense of the state?  Recall the correspondence from the previous winter in which authorities in Richmond called into question the state’s practices in regard to conscription and recruiting for state regiments.

Having explained the measures he would take, MacGrath then requested support from Richmond.  Specifically he wanted the South Carolina brigade from the Army of Northern Virginia, and if possible the services of Major-General Joseph Kershaw.  But MacGrath knew the release of those troops was contingent on the list of priorities.  So he advanced is argument that Charleston was the most important of those priorities:

You, of course, are much better informed of the number of troops on our coast and in the city of Charleston than I am. You are also aware of the necessities at other points which may control you; but it is considered that the force on the coast is not sufficient to make effectual resistance to General Sherman. If that is so, Charleston falls; if Charleston falls, Richmond follows. Richmond may fall and Charleston be saved, but Richmond cannot be saved if Charleston falls. If now I urge upon you the concentration of all available strength for the defense of Charleston I will be acquitted of all selfish consideration when I venture to remind you that two years ago, when it seemed as if then a necessity was about to arise in which you would be forced to decide between Charleston and Richmond, I gave you then the assurance of my support, however feeble, in sustaining you in the destruction of Charleston if it would accomplish the end we then desired. Now, however, I presume that, as between these places, there is no doubt that, if unable to save both, Charleston is that which from every consideration we must prefer to save.

Tastes like a cold cup of coffee in the morning for those who’ve grown fond of “Lee’s Lieutenants.” The notion that Richmond was not the cornerstone of the Confederacy?  That it could be sacrificed?  What a difference perspective makes!

MacGrath again pressed for men to defend South Carolina:

To save it we must have troops. It is in this connection that I must bring also to your attention the vital consequence of attending at once to Branchville as a place to be fortified and to which troops should be sent. Its strategic importance I am sure is too manifest to require from me any urgency in bringing it to your notice. There are no works there which are of the slightest consequence. I understand surveys are now making; it is difficult to understand why they were not made before this time. You will not understand from this that I wish to indulge in censure or criticism, but to indicate to you that a position of the utmost consequence is not prepared for resistance to the attempt which may be reasonably supposed will be made to possess it. If that attempt should be successful our future will be greatly clouded.

From that point, MacGrath also picked at an “interfearance” of the Confederate government into the state.  Specifically he noted the number of “detailed men” working in important positions supporting the war effort, and thus except from militia service.

It matters little how they may be, except in this respect: that their absence from all appearance of military service by so much diminishes the influences with which I am now attempting to quicken and excite our people not only to effective resistance, but to that confidence in the success of that resistance which will assist me in my efforts and sustain them in their conduct.

MacGrath asked for a “show.” He wanted the detailed men to appear on public parade so their service was clearly shown to the people.  This, he felt, would undercut criticism and demonstrate no favoritism was in play.

Closing, MacGrath wrote:

These suggestions I make to you with the conviction that you will assist me in every way to develop now all of our resources to aid you in the task that is before you and us. There are other matters concerning which I will at an early day communicate with you.

MacGrath had inherited a problem.  And the nature of the problem was not altered as the office-holder changed.  There was little he, or Davis, could do to forestall the advance that would step forward from Savannah.

(Citation from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 986-8.)

Marching Through Georgia, December 5, 1864: Drama at Ogeechee Creek ends with a fizzle

Let me get all “science-y” on you to start today and talk about soils and vegetation.  As Major-General William T. Sherman’s armies marched today they crossed an important line, but one not marked on their maps.  Forward elements passed into the “Atlantic Coast Flatwoods” soil province:

OK, big deal?  As far as the army is concerned, soil is what they march over or dig in, right?  Well two points for consideration.  First, as the march transited from the Piedmont, over the sand hills and fall line, to the coastal plan areas, there was less and less of the famous “Georgia clay.”  Sand is the predominate soil type, but that is not to say it is not fertile.  Indeed, the area was good pasture-land and for root crops.  But less so for grains, except for rice.  That has, of course, some implications for an army foraging its way along.

Second change due to the soil type is the natural vegetation.  The soldiers’ diaries began to mention a lot of pine trees and different kind of grass.  Let me borrow an image from the University of Florida:

Aristida stricta… Wiregrass.  OK, but the army was not there to cultivate natural grasses.  So what is the big deal?  Well look at the line, “blooms only after a growing-season burn.”  The eco-system of the “Atlantic Coast Flatwoods”, or shall we call it “Pine Barrens,” depended upon a cycle of wild-fires.  Now with an army that is – shall we say – pre-disposed to the use of matches passing through, wild-fires were commonplace.  Fires marked the path of the army. And a haze of smoke covered it.  In short, soil types are important to armies, and even to historians.

The reason I am able to allocate space to talking about sand and grass is the “fizzle” to the drama that was expected on December 5, 1864.  The movements of Sherman’s force centered on one critical objective – Train Station 4½, where Ogeechee Creek gave the Confederates a good defensive position to block the march.  On December 4, scouts from the Seventeenth Corps reported defenders well entrenched there.  And that information governed the Federal movements of the day… even though the Confederates had already withdrawn the evening prior:


Sherman’s plan was to have Seventeenth Corps confront the Confederate positions in front, while the Twentieth Corps moved up on the left, and behind the Confederate line.  The Fifteenth Corps, with its pontoon train, would threaten a crossing of the Ogeechee River downstream, if necessary.

With the First Division under Major General Joseph Mower at the point, the  Seventeenth Corps advanced toward Station 4½ that morning. Behind a screen of mounted men was a pioneer section, followed by Second Brigade of Brigadier-General John Sprague.  Supporting that lead brigade was a battery of artillery and the corps’ pontoon train.  The formation was configured to secure and improve the approaches to the creek, assuming the need to “develop” the position while other forces maneuvered on the flanks.  But as the scouts approached the site of skirmishing on the previous day, they encountered no Confederates.  While the train bridge over Ogeechee Creek was destroyed, a wagon bridge would allow passage of at least the vanguard.  The engineers promptly went to work laying a better bridge.

Sherman, moving with the Seventeenth Corps, came forward later in the day the station.  In a dispatch to Major-General Oliver O. Howard, commanding the Right Wing, he provided his assessment of the situation and amended guidance for movements to follow:

Since sending the messenger to you this morning General Blair has entered this place almost unopposed. Some field works are fresh, and, so far as I have examined, would be such as would be thrown up by 5,000 inexperienced hands. General Slocum reports he will be to-night at the point where his road next north of this intersects the one from here to Poor Robin, but he has not heard from Generals Davis and Kilpatrick since he heard their firing yesterday morning. Davis has orders to move from the point where he separated from Slocum, viz, Buck Head Church, to Halley’s Ferry, abreast of this on the Savannah, via Sylvania. I have sent a courier to General Slocum, to communicate with General Davis at once and report to me at what moment he will be ready to move on. You will observe that, with Davis at Halley’s, we threaten South Carolina, and to that extent will confuse our enemy; but I will not lose a moment, only we must move in concert, or else will get lost. You may make all the dispositions to cross at 3, but the point 2 is the true one, unless modified by local geography. I will disturb the railroad but little south of this, as we may have use for it out this far. Still, Blair can burn the bridges and culverts, and also enough cotton-gins and barns to mark the progress of his head of column. I don’t want him to start till I know Davis is abreast.

Sherman wanted to setup the next move by closing, compacting his columns.  Take note here.  We often read about battles in which commanders commit their forces piecemeal, or “what ifs” that center on the late or tardy arrival of formations to the battlefield.  What Sherman did on December 5 is an example of how to avoid those problems.  And even though the most obtuse observer could see his objective was Savannah, Sherman kept options open with threats to Charleston.

Sherman sent orders for Major-General Henry Slocum to hurry the Left Wing forward, particularly bringing the Fourteenth Corps, under Major-General Jefferson C. Davis, to close up the gap.  For the day’s march, Davis recorded:

The 5th, after a hard day’s march over country roads which required much repairing, the whole corps, with Kilpatrick’s cavalry, encamped in the vicinity of Jacksonborough, the advance at Buck Creek Post-Office.

To facilitate the linkup of Brigadier-General Absalom Baird’s division and the cavalry, the engineers repaired a bridge over Beaverdam Creek during the night.  And verbally orders passed down to once again pull the bridge up after the last military units crossed, in an effort to discourage the growing number of former slaves who were following the corps.

The Twentieth Corps, just to the south, also closed up its formation that day.  The lead division marched only a few miles before halting.  But the trail divisions labored forward on bad roads.  Brigadier-General John Geary recorded:

December 5, moved at 6.30 a.m. Crossed during the day Little Horse Creek, south fork of Little Ogeechee, destroying all bridges after crossing. Much of the route to-day was through swamps, which had to be corduroyed for my trains. At the south fork of Little Ogeechee I destroyed a large saw-mill. Here we heard what the inhabitants stated to be cannon in Charleston Harbor, about 100 miles distant.  Weather pleasant; country poor. Distance t0-day, twelve miles.

The next day, the Charleston Courier ran this update for the “Five Hundred and Fifteenth Day” of the siege of the city:

The agreement … for a suspension of all firing in the harbor and upon the city during the continuance of the exchange of prisoners at this point, was unintentionally violated by a sharpshooter at Fort Sumter Monday…. One of our men observing a body of men at [Battery] Gregg, fired his rifle, the ball taking effect upon one of the party and, it is believed, killing him.  The enemy thereupon opened all their batteries upon Fort Sumter, and kept up a heavy fire for about an hour, firing twenty-six shots.

Soon afterward an apology silenced the guns, allowing Charlestonians, and Geary in Georgia, a quiet evening.

At Ogeechee Creek, staff-officer Major Henry Hitchcock accompanied Sherman forward.  Waiting their turn to cross the creek, Sherman remarked, “This is better than having to fight those fellows in the bushes, ain’t it?”  Later, as he explained how the abandoned line changed the situation, Sherman explained the military maneuvers to Hitchcock, “Now you understand what a flank movement means.”  In conclusion, Hitchcock would add in his diary, “Flanking is good – very.”

Following the march by markers, today you would look again at the marker located in modern day Oliver and one where the town of Jacksonboro once stood.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 44, Serial 92, pages 165, 275, and 628; Charleston Courier, December 6, 1864, page 1, column 3; Henry Hitchcock, Marching with Sherman: passages from the letters and campaign diaries of Henry Hitchcock, Yale University Press, 1927, pages 145-8.)