Frederick Steele

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150 Years Ago: Monday, April 27, 1863

Joseph Hooker U.S. Commanding General, Army of the Potomac Source: Library of Congress

Joseph Hooker
U.S. Commanding General, Army of the Potomac
Source: Library of Congress

How does it look now?“, reads U.S. Commanding General Joseph Hooker. The telegram in his hands is from President Abraham Lincoln, who, like every Spring since the war started, is highly anxious and high strung now that Winter is behind them. With the warmer weather, the Army of the Potomac should be on the move. But at the beginning of each Spring they must deal with rising rivers from the melting snow and consistent rains, which often hinder their movements. The last major move the Union army made in the Eastern theater of war was at Fredericksburg last December, under U.S. Major General Ambrose Burnside. It had resulted in a major loss that has challenged the will of the people in the North to continue the war and has diminished the power of the United States on an international level. With Hooker now in charge, Lincoln has been sending communications that he no longer wants constant maneuvering of positions. He wants a battle and he wants it won. The Union needs a major victory.

It just so happens that Hooker has just begun moving his troops today, in what he considers a major plan to surprise C.S.A. General Robert E. Lee and the majority of his troops in the Fredericksburg area. Hooker is hoping to swing around Lee and cut off their supply lines from Richmond, and to turn the Confederate left flank. Hooker isn’t looking for a repeat battle at Fredericksburg; he was against the move back in December as he saw Lee’s troops on the high ground behind the stone wall protecting them. He has his own plans for success.

After days of waiting for the water levels to lower, Hooker’s Fifth, Eleventh and Twelfth Corps cross the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above Fredericksburg. Union cavalry under Major General George Stoneman begins a long distance raid against Lee’s supply lines that Hooker is hoping will be successful and also preoccupy some of Lee’s troops.

The man who had once been a friend of U.S. Major General Ulysses S. Grant and had met with him on surrender terms back in February 1862 at Fort Donelson, Tennessee is promoted today by C.S.A. President Jefferson Davis. Major General Simon Buckner, who has spent the last six months in command of the District of the Gulf and has been in charge of the defenses in Mobile, Alabama, has been assigned command of the Department of East Tennessee. He will make arrangements to make the move to Knoxville, where he will work closely under C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg, who he has worked with before and dislikes as a General. In fact, Buckner had been one of many to publicly denounce Bragg’s performance during his Fall campaign in Kentucky last year, which resulted in Bragg’s army abandoning any future invasion of Kentucky even after a successful fight in Perryville in October.

Two days ago Grant had given specific orders for his men to be ready to take Grand Gulf, Mississippi fortifications in a strategic move to take the final target of Vicksburg. Yesterday Grant had arrived at U.S. Major General John McClernand’s camp only to find it highly disorganized and not at all working on his orders to prepare for the move today. McClernand had steamers and transports that were still scattered freely along the river and bayous, unable to support the move as planned. The two divisions that were to board the steamers were stuck on land. Instead of following Grant’s orders of preparation, McClernand staged a review of a single brigade for his visiting friend, Illinois Governor Richard Yates. McClernand’s men listen to a long and splendid motivational speech from Yates, followed by one from McClernand. At the end, McClernand has his artillery fire a salute to the Governor using ammunition that was to be saved to fight the enemy per Grant’s orders, as they were in very low supply. McClernand couldn’t have made a more obvious statement to Grant that he did not only disagree with his plan, but disrespected him as a leader. This was not new to Grant, who has been struggling with McClernand for months, with McClernand feeling that he should be the one in charge of the Vicksburg campaign. Though Yates has strong political power, Lincoln has the final say and he believes in Grant’s abilities.

Grant again sends specific, written orders to McClernand as to what he wants done today: McClernand’s troops are to board and await orders to move via steamers to a point opposite Grand Gulf. The Navy will reduce whatever batteries the Confederates have in place, and then McClernand’s men will be ferried to the Mississippi shore, where they are to unload from the steamers and storm up the bluffs, capturing the Confederate fortifications. Men are to take only three days supply of rations; Grant wants everyone traveling light and with only the bare necessities. He needs his men to be able to move quickly.

Instead of following Grant’s orders, McClernand again has other ideas. Instead of taking the troops via water, he wants to take an open road to the same point opposite Grand Gulf, which leads to a little village called Hard Times. Grant allows a reconnaissance party to see if roads are passable, and instead they find Confederate cavalry. As McClernand still does not have enough transports to board his men, Grant seizes the opportunity and orders the last two of McClernand’s divisions to drive the Confederates out and take the village of Hard Times. There will be no move today against Grand Gulf but at least the Union army can accomplish something.

Wanting to create a diversion, Grant turns his attention to his most trusted fellow officer, U.S. Major William T. Sherman, who is the furthest north and closest to Vicksburg. He sends a note to Sherman:

“If you think it advisable, you may make a reconnaissance of Haynes’ Bluff, taking as much force and as many steamers as you like. The effect of a heavy demonstration in that direction would be good so far as the enemy are concerned, but I am loath to order it, because it would be so hard to make our own troops understand that only a demonstration was intended, and our people at home would characterize it as a repulse. I therefore leave it to you whether to make such a demonstration. Publish your order beforehand, stating that a reconnaissance in force is to be made for the purpose of calling off the enemy’s attention from our movements south of Vicksburg, and not with any expectation of attacking.”

The orders Sherman receive give him a lot of leeway and decision making power. But Grant trusts him fully. Sherman immediately swings into action. To cover the road from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, he detaches a division under Major General Frederick Steele. Sherman reveals to Steele that “General Grant directs me to control matters at this end.” Sherman knows he has Grant’s trust and that fuels him; it gives him confidence in his own abilities, which is something he lacked at the beginning of the war.

The move Grant wanted to make today against Grand Gulf will have to wait until tomorrow. He only hopes that this delay has not given the Confederates time to repulse their attack. But in typical Grant fashion, he has still made moves and tried to take advantage of the delay as best he can. He understands that public and political perception is very important right now.

C.S.A. Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson sends another battle report to General Robert E. Lee, this time regarding the second Battle of Manassas (known as Bull Run in North) from last August. He once again praises the support of C.S.A. Major General and cavalry officer J.E.B. Stuart for his action on the field. His fondness for Stuart is very obvious; it’s a huge compliment coming from someone who does not often give such high praise so freely. Jackson closes with the following:

For these great and signal victories our sincere and humble thanks are due unto Almighty God. We should in all things acknowledge the hand of Him who reigns in heaven and rules among the armies of men. In view of the arduous labors and great privations the troops were called to endure and the isolated and perilous position which the command occupied while engaged with greatly-superior numbers of the enemy we can but express the grateful conviction of our mind that God was with us and gave to us the victory, and unto His holy name be the praise.

150 Years Ago: Sunday, December 28, 1862

Execution of Asa LewisSource: Library of Congress

Execution of Asa Lewis
Source: Library of Congress

“Amidst a drenching rain-storm, Asa Lewis, member of Captain Page’s company, Sixth Kentucky regiment, was shot by a file of men. He was executed upon a charge of desertion, which was fully proven against him. The scene was one of great impressiveness and solemnity. The several regiments of Hanson’s brigade were drawn up in a hollow square, while Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, with their staffs, were present to witness the execution. The prisoner was conveyed from jail to the brigade drill-ground on an open wagon, under the escort of a file of ten men, commanded by Major Morse and Lieut. George B. Brumley. Lewis’s hands were tied behind him, a few words were said to him by Generals Breckinridge and Hanson, and word fire was given, and all was over. The unfortunate man conducted himself with great coolness and composure. He was said to have been a brave soldier, and distinguished himself at the battle of Shiloh.” — The Chattanooga Daily Rebel Banner

Asa Lewis was 19 when he was executed for desertion, with the orders given by C.S.A. General Braxton Bragg, Commander of the Army of the Tennessee. Lewis had joined Company E, the 6th Kentucky Infantry Regiment of the “Orphan Brigade” at the beginning of the war. Just a farm boy from Barren County, Kentucky, he had received no training, only a rifle. He was at the horrific battle of Shiloh, Tennessee in April 1862 and afterwards was promoted to Corporal for his actions on the field. When his enlisted service period of one year was over, Lewis stayed instead of returning home.

But Lewis was receiving panicked letters from his mother that his family needed him. His father had passed away shortly after he left home, and his mother and three sisters were unable to take care of the farm and were starving and financially broke. Lewis formally requested a furlough so he could return home to plant the crops needed for his family to survive, but was denied as the Confederates needed every man they could muster serving in the field. Lewis made the decision to leave anyway, without permission; he would return home to make sure his family had a crop this year and then would then return to his unit.

Desertion in both armies is very common and causes a great deal of frustration for both governments. In order to have an effective military force, both sides need reliability when it comes to their troops. An emphasis is put on finding deserters and bringing them back; while some are sent back into the field, others are punished or sentenced to death. Though the officers of Lewis’s unit plead with Bragg, he refuses to repeal the sentence, stating that the desertion rate is growing and an example has to be set. Even Kentuckians who were supporters of the Confederacy petitioned that the sentence be commuted. It didn’t make a difference; Lewis was executed two days ago. Kentuckians are furious at Bragg as the news spreads of Lewis’s execution; the 6th Kentucky Infantry is so outraged that a mutiny almost breaks out. Lewis will not be the only one to die for desertion; many are killed at the orders of Bragg to set an example to the rest of his men that desertion will not be tolerated.

North of Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S. Major General William T. Sherman has been conducting reconnaissance to find weaknesses in Confederate defenses surrounding the city. One of his four divisions, led by Frederick Steele, attempts to turn the Confederate right flank but is repulsed by artillery fire as they advance on a very narrow front. For now Sherman remains on his own with 32,000 troops; Major Generals Ulysses S. Grant and John McClernand are no where near the city where the attacks were to be coordinated.

After traveling from Springfield, Illinois, McClernand arrives Memphis, Tennessee and finds himself without the divisions he expects to have waiting for him. He finds that Sherman has absorbed them into his command and has already gone downriver. McClernand is under the impression that the Vicksburg campaign is his to run, not Grant’s; he has papers from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton assigning McClernand command of the Vicksburg expedition. Not having heard from Grant, he sends him a letter expressing his disappointment with how things have been handled and wants guarantees from Grant that his command will be restored to him. He is not aware that Grant is currently maneuvering his troops back towards Memphis after his supply and communication lines were cut off by Confederate cavalry in Mississippi.

Betty Herndon MaurySource: Virginia Historical Society

Betty Herndon Maury
Source: Virginia Historical Society

Twenty-seven year old Elizabeth “Betty” Herndon Maury is a life-long Virginian and supporter of the Southern cause. Her husband (and cousin) of five years, William A. Maury, is the Judge Advocate General of the Confederate States of America. Her brother Richard is a commander of the 24th Virginia.

Betty was living in Fredericksburg before the battle and has since returned to her home. Today she writes in her diary about the conflict:

“On the 13th of December God blessed us with a great victory at Fredericksburg. Upwards of eighteen thousand of the enemy were killed. We lost but one thousand. Even the Yankees acknowledge it to be a great defeat.

The battle took place in and around the town. The streets were strewn with the fallen enemy, the houses were broken open, sacked and used for hospitals, and their dead were buried in almost every yard.

Dr. Nichols was there—came as an amateur with his friend Gen’ Hooker—he occupied Uncle John’s house (where his wife has been most hospitably entertained for weeks at a time) drank up Uncle J’s wine, used his flour and ate up Ellen Mercer’s preserves.

Delicacy, and so cold blooded and heartless as to come—not at the stern call of duty, but for the love of it—to gloat over the desolated homes of people he once called friends, and who are relations and connections of his wife’s.”

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