Saturday, 27 May 2017

The Vicksburg Campaign (1863)

It might initially appear odd to start a tour of the American Civil War's Mississippi battlefields in Washington DC. However it is here, in a prime position in front of the United States Capitol, that
 the veterans of the Army of the Tennessee decided to erect a spectacular monument to the man who lead them so effectively through 1863 - the critical year of the war. Ulysses S. Grant sits astride his horse gazing in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial flanked by equally dramatic representations of Federal cavalry and artillerymen.

Grant Memorial - The U.S. Capitol, Washington D.C.
Detail from the Grant Memorial, Washington D.C.
The Mississippi river was a vital communication artery for the CSA. Winfield Scott's Anaconda plan envisaged the Yankee army taking the Mississippi river from top to bottom thus severing the Confederacy in two. However in the spring of 1863, notwithstanding the fall of New Orleans in the previous year, the Confederate Army had a tight grip on the middle reaches from Port Hudson in the south to a point up and beyond Vicksburg - about 250 miles downstream from the city of Memphis.

The 'Widow Blakely' - Confederate Battery, Vicksburg
Grant, then commander of the Army of Tennessee, had made repeated attempts to open up the river to Union traffic. Set-piece attacks on Confederate positions in the north had been costly failures and an attempt to build a canal so as to bypass Vicksburg had been a fruitless endeavour. His decision to sail a flotilla of steamships with a major part of his army onboard to a point downstream of the city and then launch an amphibious assault caused consternation amongst many of his contemporaries. The ships would have to run a gauntlet under the sights of the CSA batteries on the Vicksburg heights and, once landed, his men would have no line of supply - the army would need to subsist through requisition and confiscation.

The Old Road East from Port Gibson
The run down-river went well and first contact with the Rebel Army came in the settlement of Port Gibson where the batteries at Fort Coburn were well placed to disrupt river traffic. After landing, Grant once again confounded Confederate expectations by setting out for Jackson rather than moving straight onto Vicksburg. The road and rail links through Jackson were the only means by which Pemberton's 60,000 strong army in Vicksburg could be resupplied.

A series of battles over the ensuing few weeks culminated in the fall of Jackson and the full encirclement of Vicksburg - Raymond (12 May 1863), Champion Hill (16 May 1863) and Big Black Bridge (17 May 1863).

Raymond - Batt D, 1st Illinois Light Art, 3rd Div, 17th Corps (USA)
Champion Hill - Bledsoe's Missouri Battery, Gregg's Task Force (CSA)
Local Confederate formations flowed back into Vicksburg and the city settled into a state of siege - a trial for civilians and soldiers alike. Most of the battlefield has been beautifully preserved with the siege lines facing out to fortified Federal positions. Recently much of the tree growth has been cleared so that the visitor can discern the gullies and hills which characterise the local topography.

Our excellent guide, Gary J. Millett, in full flow
The Vicksburg Siege Lines - Hillls and Gullies
Grant's Army made repeated attempts to breech the Confederate lines but to no avail. Losses on both sides were severe and so Grant reconciled himself to a formal siege. On July 3 1863, after forty six days of severe depredation for the defenders, The Confederate General Pemberton met with Grant to discuss surrender terms. On July 4 1863, Vicksburg officially surrendered and Grant's reputation as a military leader was made.

The site of Grant & Pemberton's meeting - July 3 1863
Five days later Port Hudson, 130 miles to the south, surrendered - the Mississippi was opened up to Union river traffic and the Confederacy was severed. "The father of waters," said President Lincoln, "again goes unvexed to the sea". 

The Port Hudson battlefield is a difficult site to read. The Mississippi now takes a slightly different course and so the old fortifications are effectively landlocked. Furthermore the area is heavily wooded so it is almost impossible to get a bearing on what the area looked like at the time of the American Civil War.

The site of Fort Babcock - Port Hudson, Louisiana
As most readers will know, following the successful Vicksburg campaign, Grant was eventually given command of the Federal Army and his leadership was the key to the North's victory. It is perhaps ironic that the reputation of this gifted commander, who achieved so much, is often unfairly overshadowed by that of his opposite number whom Grant outfought in the Eastern campaign - Robert E. Lee.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Battle of New Orleans (1815)

The battlefield at Chalmette maybe the only such site accessible by paddle steamer. Indeed the trip down river from the wharfs at New Orleans on board the river boat Creole Queen is a great way of admiring the scale of the mighty River Mississippi and seeing some of the outlying New Orleans communities - many of which were sadly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Riverfront at New Orleans
The Battle of New Orleans was a last attempt by the British to reach a favourable settlement with the USA as the War of 1812 fizzled to an end in the face of more pressing issues closer to home - namely the resurgence of the Emperor Napoleon who would finally be stopped at Waterloo, five months after a token British force was defeated on the banks of the Mississippi. Major General Thomas Pakenham was tasked with taking New Orleans so as to control U.S. trade through the waterways of Louisiana. Major General Andrew Jackson (later President Jackson) was in command of a mixed force of 5,000 local men and was emboldened by an intense disapproval of the British whom he famously called "the common enemy of mankind".
The American Defence Line at Chalmette
The battlefield is well preserved although the authenticity of the trenches still evident on the Western fringes may have been compromised by the landscaping that is taken place over the last two hundred years. Parts of the canal which was a major obstacle in front of the American positions are partly discernible as depressions in the ground. The picture above shows the northern end of the line where Jackson's force dug in. The area where the British assembled is now dominated by a tall factory chimney. The 44th (East Sussex) Regiment of Foot attacked head on, parallel to the river bank. The failure of this move was exacerbated by the massive losses sustained in a subsequent attack by the 93rd Highlanders. Both movements are shown in the first picture below.
Map of the Battlefield from the Park
Monument & Visitor Centre - Chalmette Battlefield

The attack was a costly failure and resulted in British withdrawal from Louisiana. Andrew Jackson's contribution - on the battlefield and later in the political world - is acknowledged in the centre of the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans. Jackson Square is dominated by a statue of the great man on horseback waving his hat in acknowledgement of cheering supporters. The Chalmette National Cemetery adjacent to the Battlefield Park is mainly testament to later wars. The majority of burials are Union soldiers killed during the Civil War. Amongst the others are four War of 1812 veterans of which one fought at New Orleans.

The historic St Louis Cemetery No.1 close to Congo Square on the northern fringe of the French Quarter contains a memorial to Americans killed at the Battle of New Orleans. The inscription reads 'Among burials in this area are William P. Canby who died in defence of the city in the Battle of New Orleans and the defeat of the British Army, January 8th, 1815'.

 New Orleans has a number of sites which will be of interest to military historians. Firstly the hugely impressive statue of Robert E Lee in 'Robert E Lee Square'. For me this speaks volumes about the Confederate leadership in the Civil War where the South suffered from a deficit of top quality generalship in the West.
Rober E Lee

I can't help wondering whether there would be an Albert Sidney Johnson Square had the man in question survived The Battle of Shiloh. Lee never fought in the West during the Civil War so his presence here is surely emblematic.
The Museum of the Confederacy

The second site of interest is the Confederate Memorial Hall which is located a few yards from Lee's statue. This old school museum is full of fascinating artefacts. I was particularly struck by the battle-flags and the personal papers of various Civil War participants. It's a highly partisan collection but is well worth a visit.

The final site is on a different scale entirely. The National WWII Museum is on the opposite side of Lee Square and represents all that is good about modern day historical interpretation.
National WWII Museum

The museum is set in two parts. The War in Europe and The War in the East. The visitor is guided through a series of set piece chronological interactive display areas which contain a great mix of exhibits, information panels and historical documents. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the whole thing is very 'USA centric' and in particular the critical role of the Soviet Union in the West is massively understated. For me though, the galleries on the Pacific War were a revelation - a great mix of learning and entertainment.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Shiloh - Railroads and Rivers (1862)

In the 1860s armies in the field were entirely dependent on the movement of men and material by rail or waterway. Following the loss of Kentucky and Mid Tennessee in February 1862 the Confederacy was obliged to protect the strategically important Mississippi valley and therefore amassed a force of 44,000 men under the command of General Albert Sidney Johnson at the major rail hub of Corinth.

Corinth Railroad Crossing
Corinth retains a 'time stands still' charm although nowadays
Highway 61 and the Natchez Trace have turned the place into something of a backwater. The rail intersection (North / South and East / West) is still the centre of the town though and every few minutes a freight train thunders through.

Freight Train - Corinth
In mid March, 22 miles northeast of Corinth, General Ulysses S. Grant disembarked his 40,000 strong force at Pittsburg Landing on the busy Tennessee River. Expecting the Confederates to hunker down in Corinth, Grant ordered his men to set up camps in the area around Shiloh Church. His instructions were to await reinforcements in the form Don Carlos Buell's Army of the Ohio which was en-route overland from Nashville.

Pittsburg Landing - Then and Now
Johnston took full advantage of Grant's complacency in not fortifying the camps by launching a surprise attack. At dawn on the 6th April 1862 a tide of well armed, highly motivated Confederate troops swept through the Federal lines. Many of the units under Grant's command stubbornly contested the Confederate advance but over a period of six hours the defending troops were gradually pushed back towards the gullies surrounding the landing site. 

Picket Fence & Gun Battery at Shiloh

Both sides were using Napoleonic tactics and regiments fought in line two men deep. Accurate rifle fire and plentiful artillery wreaked havoc on the lines. In particular canister shot from amassed guns blew large gaps in the ranks of infantry. The casualty rate was truly horrific - amounting to 28% of those who fought once the final roll calls were taken at the end of the battle. One of the most poignant spots on the modern day battlefield is the Hornet's Nest where Union forces held on for several hours in the face of determined assaults by Confederate infantry supported by massed artillery (Ruggles' Grand Battery).
The southern face of the Hornet's Nest
Despite the determined assault, Grant showed his mettle by hanging onto the Pittsburg Landing bridgehead. As the Federal Army's line contracted so Grant was able to concentrate his fire more effectively. Suffering extreme fatigue and mounting losses the force of the attack began to diminish. With Buell's Brigades starting to arrive on the evening of 6th April the advantage began to swing to the Union side.

Confederate Battlefield Cemetery - Shiloh
The battlefield is a complex one to interpret so we enlisted the services of accredited guide Gary Millett. Gary did a great job in taking us through the sequence of events, enlivening his narrative with personal observations about some of the units and commanders involved. 

Gary Millett explaining how regiments fought 'in line'
On Day 2 - the 7th April 1862 'the spring decompressed' and the larger Union Force began to push back on the Confederate attackers. The Confederates had been further disadvantaged the previous day by the loss of their commander - General Albert Sidney Johnson. Johnson was mortally wounded whilst directing the final - successful - assault on the Peach Orchard. General P.G.T. Beauregard took command of the Confederate Army but the loss of Johnson - an inspirational figure - affected morale and impacted the strategic direction of the Confederate effort. 

In seeing Robert E. Lee's statue in New Orleans a few hours drive down Highway 61 I couldn't help reflecting on whether Johnson might have been given this honour had he survived Shiloh and gone on the fight further battles - after all Lee did not fight in the Western theatre.
Red Light for Robert E. Lee in New Orleans
On the morning of the 7th April, the Union force aided by 25,000 reinforcements unleashed a counter-offensive. Despite ragged command and control on account of Grant and Buell's failure to communicate with each other effectively, the attacking Brigades pushed the Confederate defenders back through the broken camps which had been the scene of such difficult fighting the previous day. 

Union Artillery at 'Bloody Pond'
After six hours of bitter fighting, Beauregard ordered a retreat to Corinth. The exhausted Union force did not pursue the retreating Confederates - a criticism which has since been made. Corinth was abandoned by Beauregard three weeks later as Halleck's 100,000 strong Union Army began to threaten a decisive assault on the beleaguered town. Nowadays the Battlefield Park at Shiloh is a beautifully preserved site which is home to an abundance of wildlife including several large herds of deer.

Many of the Union dead are interred in a large cemetery at Pittsburg Landing in proximity to the modern day Visitor Centre. As for the Confederate dead, many are buried where they fell - in particular in five mass graves  around the battlefield. As is the case with so many American Civil War battlefields, the ground is marked by numerous memorials and the position of batteries is shown by the careful placement of guns.

Defeated Victory
One of the most impressive memorials was erected in 1917 by 'the United Daughters of the Confederacy'. Designed by Frederick Hibbard it is rich with imagery and meaning. The picture above shows a representation of the Confederate cavalry and endeavours to acknowledge the frustration experienced by horsemen at Shiloh who were unable to deploy effectively on ground covered in thick undergrowth and criss-crossed by deep gullies.