Nineteenth Annual Appomattox CH / Longwood U. Civil War Seminar

Save the date.  The Nineteenth Annual Civil War Seminar, hosted by Appomattox Court House National Historic Park and Longwood University, is on Saturday, February 3, 2018 at Jarman Auditorium on the Longwood University campus, Farmville, Virginia.

Appomattox Court House NHP will post details on their event page, but from the flyer distributed by Longwood University:

  • 8:30 a.m.          Doors open
  • 9:00 a.m.          Introduction by Dr. David Coles
  • 9:10 a.m.          Gary W. Gallager –  Robert E. Lee Generalship: Politics, Public Morale, and Confederate Prospects for Victory

The quality of Robert E. Lee’s generalship has prompted considerable debate since the 1970s.  This lecture will assess critiques of Lee as a parochial Virginian who failed to see the larger strategic picture, waged too many costly battles, never came to terms with the impact of recent military technology, and might have shortened, rather than lengthened, the life of the Confederacy.

  • 10:15 a.m.        Ralph Peters – Leaders Known, Leaders Forgotten: Command and Character in the Civil War

Explores the various styles of leadership on the battlefield and in high command, with special attention to the interactions of character, personal background, generational issues and talent. What are the consistencies and contradictions of successful battlefield leadership?  How often did personal relationships determine outcomes? Are there lessons for today, or is leadership different now? Discussion will focus on commanders from Grant and Lee to Jackson, Hooker, Sheridan, Gordon, Stuart, O.O. Howard and Carl Schurz, with various “honorable mentions.”

  • 11:30 a.m.        Edwin C. Bearss – Recollections of Appomattox

Reflections that delve into not only some historical aspects of Appomattox, but also personal reflections on attending the 100th, 125th, and 150th Anniversary events.

  • 12:30                 Lunch
  • 1:45 p.m.          Judith Giesberg –  Sex and the Civil War: Soldiers, Pornography, and the Making of American Morality

This talk will explore the Civil War origins of the anti-pornography legislation by taking a look at the impetus behind a February 1865 law.  Making use of the wartime letters and diaries of a number of Union soldiers, the lecture considers soldiers’ own experiences with period erotica. What did they have access to, read, circulate? And, what did these materials mean to them? The Civil War was a turning point for the influential rise of postwar anti-vice campaigns.  These also included laws against contraceptives and abortion, newly entrenched legal regulations of marriage, and ever broader social purity initiatives around sexuality.

  •  2:45 p.m.        John W. Montcastle – When War Came This Way: The Woman’s War

The Civil War in Virginia brought women untold challenges, crushing hardships, and great pain. But the conflict which often dashed their hopes for the future also spurred women to step into roles previously denied them. Then, they made significant contributions to their families, their communities, and their state.  When war came this way, women achieved a reputation for sacrifice, selfless service, and leadership that inspires us still.

No reservations necessary.  Signs will be posted on the Longwood University Campus.  For directions to the campus go to  For more information contact Dr. David Coles at 434-395-2220 or Patrick Schroeder at 434-352-8987, Ext. 232.

This seminar is always a favorite of mine.  As welcome as a cup of coffee and a warm fireplace as it comes in mid-winter.  I plan to attend and hope to see you there.  But if you are unable to, I’ll be on Twitter providing some of the highlights.

Cavalry Tactics: You better load on Sunday and shoot all week! The trooper’s load and firing line

An oft cited generalization in regard to the Cavalry during the Civil War involves the use of repeaters or breechloaders, which gave the troopers some advantage in firepower.  And often you’ll see reference to the Army Ordnance Department resisting the adoption of repeaters, citing “ammunition expenditure.”

In Cavalry Tactics, Alonzo Gray offered four vignettes to describe the nature of ammunition expenditure and the firing line.  The first came from Lieutenant Colonel George A. Purington, 2nd Ohio Cavalry.  The report cited discussed the operations of May 30, just before the Battle of Cold Harbor, where the cavalry was pushed forward to seize positions in advance of infantry movements:

… and here allow me to call your attention to the necessity of having some organized system of ordnance sergeants or men detailed, whose duty it shall be to keep cavalry commands well supplied with ammunition during engagements. Men armed with the breech-loading weapon will necessarily fire a greater number of rounds than those armed with a muzzle-loading piece, and it is utterly impossible for a cavalry man to carry more than from 60 to 80 rounds upon his person, and when dismounted and away from his horse this supply can be easily exhausted in a few hours’ firing. In this case my regiment expended its ammunition in the battle of May 31.

So once again we encounter that old equation – how much can a soldier… or in this case a trooper… carry?  In this case, the regimental commander felt that was only 60 to 80 rounds at most.

And how long would that last?  “… easily exhausted in a few hours’ firing.”

Infantry types will tell you each member of their line was limited to between 80 and 100 rounds, practically speaking – forty rounds in the cartridge box and a few other packages in pockets or haversacks.  So with good fire discipline, one might expect the “time on the line” to be roughly equal between cavalry and infantry, for a skirmish situation.

But there’s more to this than simply counting the number of bullets.  First off, where would a trooper or soldier seek resupply?  From the trains of course.  Infantry trains can normally follow close behind the line of march, save instances of forced or rapid marches.  And even then only a few hours might be expected.

Cavalry, on the other hand, might operate for days without the encumbrance of the trains.  For example, the four days that Brigadier-General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s cavalry operated towards Millen and back, November 26-29, 1864.   But of course, the trooper had a horse on which more ammunition might be carried.  Still, as Purington alludes to, the carbine was best employed on foot which put the horse out of reach.

A second problem was that not all bullets are the same.  Things that fit down the muzzle of a three-band rifle are not apt to fit the carbine slung over the trooper’s back.  The Cavalry didn’t just need any ammunition.  They needed their ammunition, as Purington continued:

At daylight details were sent to train, but no ammunition of that caliber (No. 54) could be obtained. Captain Weeks, in command of detail, with great promptness immediately started for our own train, some 9 miles distant, to obtain a supply, making trip back to Hanover Court-House, thence to Ashland, 27 miles, each man loaded with 85 pounds ammunition, in less than one half day, and even then hardly arrived in time, as three boxes were captured by the enemy before we could issue it to the men.

In one paragraph, both of the factors I mentioned above.  Half a day to haul ammunition from the trains back to the front.  Oh, and part of that was captured before the troopers could get the boxes open.  How tight was that situation?

And I feel warranted in saying that had this ammunition not arrived, and with our already too small force weakened by the withdrawal of my regiment, the consummate bravery of the brigade could not have prevented serious disaster.

Gray went on to cite another report filed a year later from Colonel Alexander Pennington, who commanded First Brigade of Major-General George A. Custer’s division during the Appomattox Campaign.  In a similar situation to Purington’s, Pennington dispatched a mounted detail to secure ammunition then distribute to the battle line at Five Forks, April 1, 1865.

As a negative example, Gray mentions that Major-General Philip Sheridan withdrew from Trevillian Station for want of ammunition.   Though one might contend that Sheridan withdrew from that battle for several reasons… the want of ammunition being just that cited with most clarity (how’s that for being kind?).

From these three sources, Gray advanced the comment:

A soldier should carry enough ammunition on his person to fight at least one battle.  A cavalryman may have ammunition on his horse, which ammunition, under most circumstances, will be available.  It will seldom be possible to bring ammunition from the squadron wagons to the firing line, but where horsemen can approach the firing line from the rear under cover, ammunition can be supplied.

On the “modern” firing line, we refer to the number of rounds carried in the tank or infantry fighting vehicle.  That determines the number of targets the unit might engage and thus the amount of time the vehicle (and crew) can remain engaged without rotation.  Of course there are other factors that I could detail here, but for the moment just focusing on the ammunition supply.  An M1A2 tank carries forty-two rounds of main gun ammunition.  The M1A2 crew might fire six or more rounds per minute, but in combat situations that would be lower for need to acquire and reengage targets.  Perhaps, in a pressed situation the crew would burn through those 42 rounds in an hour.  More likely a few hours (even then assuming continuous combat, which is not common in the modern combat environment).  After those are “sent down range” the tank is basically a mobile fortification with only machine guns. While the troopers of 1865 might be resupplied with someone dragging ammunition boxes up from the rear, an M1A1 must be loaded in a rear area where the handlers are not exposed to fire.

So, you might say this factor of ammunition expenditure and resupply is still a factor… even in a mechanized army with computerized cannon (smoothbore, mind you!) firing armor piercing ammunition.  After all 42 rounds and “a few hours’ firing” are somewhat constants for the troopers… regardless if the mount eats grass or JP-8 fuel.

Oh… and I did say Gray cited four sources, yes.  The forth was Frederick Whittaker’s Volunteer Cavalry, Lessons of the Decade.  That source deserves separate treatment … all to follow shortly.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 36, Part I, Serial 67, page 895; Alonzo Gray, Cavalry Tactics, as Illustrated by the War of the Rebellion, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Cavalry Association, 1910, page 155.)

April 15, 1865: “It is too horrible to contemplate with composure” – the focus of the armies turn on the news

It is very easy for us to get caught up in the significance of a historical event, and forget that those living through the times were, just as you and I do today, living each day as moment to moment.  We all track that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865.  And he died the following morning after 7 a.m.  But the news of that calamity, and thus reaction to it, did not spread for hours… and for some points on the map … days to come.

Indeed, just as Lincoln’s last breath passed that morning, Lieutenant-General Ulysses S. Grant penned a message (close to the same moment in time, mind you) to Major-General Philip Sheridan, advising him to prepare for another campaign:

General Sherman is in motion after Johnston’s army. It may be that instead of surrendering, Johnston may follow his usual tactics of falling back whenever too hard pressed. If so, Sherman has not got cavalry enough to head off and capture his army.  I want you to get your cavalry in readiness to push south and make up this deficiency if it becomes necessary. Sherman expected to occupy Raleigh on the 13th, but does not say which way the enemy is moving. I hope to hear further from him almost any hour, and will inform you when I do.

That was sent at 7 a.m. the morning of April 15. Several things were in play at that time.  But let us step back from the chain of events that would follow and consider what Grant, Sheridan and others had pressing at the fore.

The armies which had pursued General Robert E. Lee’s command were strung out across Virginia’s Southside.  But they were not actively campaigning, but rather occupying.  One of the worst things that can befall an army configured for campaign is to stop.  When in light marching order and moving, “just enough” is often sufficient.  There is an efficiency which comes, down to the individual soldier’s level, from being dependent on the knapsack, haversack, and cartridge box.  But when that same army stops, such frugality seems to disappear.  The army still needs that “just enough” and yet more.

Compounding the inactivity after April 9, the armies in the field had but one main supply line feeding them.  It ran from City Point to Burkeville.  Colonel Richard Batchelder, Quartermaster for the Army of the Potomac, complained about this on April 13:

I ordered yesterday 2,000,000 pounds of grain for this army; but 60,000 pounds have been received to-day. The trains do not run on regular time, and are from twelve to fifteen hours on the road from City Point to this place. Instead of filling up our supplies the present management of the road will starve the army in about two days more time. The trains should commence running on regular time to-morrow. There ought not to be a single day’s delay, and the trains should be compelled to run promptly by the time-table. A separate telegraph line should also be established. There is no reason why the army cannot be fully supplied if the road is properly managed, and I have to request that you give such instructions as will cause it to be at once placed in the most effective working condition.

Emphasis for the moment on the concern – “will starve the army in about two days….”  The Army of the Potomac and other forces still in the field were in a logistical pinch.

On the same day (April 13), Sheridan sent an inquiry to Grant’s Chief of Staff, Brigadier-General John Rawlins, also touching upon logistical matters.

The officers and men of the First and Third Divisions of cavalry brought with them from Winchester only the clothes they wore on their persons and are badly off. All the trains and baggage of these divisions are at Harper’s Ferry. Would it be best to order them down?

Again, step into the situation.  Sheridan’s troopers had campaigned out of the Shenandoah Valley in March, with, as he put it, just what they carried.  The command only brought eight pontoon bridges, for example.  With Grant’s message at 7 a.m. on April 15, Sheridan’s logistical concerns would increase by multiples.

Now this is not to say Sheridan could not have driven into North Carolina with his force.  Rather to say the effort would have been difficult, logistically, while perhaps not so much tactically.  And that was the pressing matter of the day at 7 a.m. on April 15.

What Grant and Sheridan did not know at that moment were the messages crossing in route to them.  Sherman had already sent dispatches informing Grant that Johnston was proposing a truce and seemed willing to come to terms.  Sherman’s message of the day included the line, “If any cavalry have started toward me caution them that they must be prepared to find our work done.” Sheridan was not going to North Carolina to fight Johnston.

But while waiting on that dispatch, another would arrive which would completely alter the situation.   Major-General John Parke, commanding the Ninth Corps, confirmed that news of Lincoln’s death, coming across the lines later in the day:

I am afraid it is indeed true. Army headquarters asked City Point to reference the genuineness of the dispatch and City Point replies it is reliable and has been since confirmed. It is too horrible to contemplate with composure.

From Washington, Grant ordered the arrest of former Confederate political figures in Richmond.  But was talked out of that by Major-General E.O.C. Ord, reasoning they were not involved with the plot, and further, “Should I arrest them under the circumstances I think the rebellion here would be reopened.”

As word of Lincoln’s death spread, and at the same time, word from North Carolina spread, the focus of the armies changed.  Movement orders rescinded.  In some cases, new orders issued.  New instructions issued with respect to civilians and paroled Confederates.  Heightened suspicions leading to tighter security.

Pressing matters of logistics became small annoyances as news arrived on April 15, 1865.

(Citations from OR, Series I, Volume 46, Part III, Serial 97, pages 730, 733, and 760-1; Volume 47, Part III, page 221.)