Thursday, August 1, 2013

French's Pets

A lot of bloggers have written of late on the state of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. They have wondered aloud whether Gettysburg’s anniversary marked the end of the attention the Sesquicentennial has received from mass audiences, and they have discussed the importance—and the difficulty—of keeping the momentum of the Sesquicentennial going for the next two years.

Somehow, romantic notions of the war up through Gettysburg have survived over the years. There was nothing romantic about places like Shiloh, Antietam, and Chancellorsville, but these depictions remain popular. The story becomes different after Gettysburg though. Try writing a glorified depiction of the Battle of the Wilderness, of the fight at the Mule Shoe, or of Cold Harbor. Complex issues also demand attention when you commemorate the final years of the war – emancipation, massacres of black soldiers, one of the most racially charged elections in our nation’s history, and the fights over Reconstruction that began as early as 1863. And then of course, there is the human toll, and the difficult question: was it worth it?

All of these stories make commemorating the war in 1864 and 1865 complex. But it is a challenge that public historians must accept. Whether or not one believes that Gettysburg and Vicksburg marked a crucial turning point in the war, we must recognize that those who experienced the war did not feel like the beginning of the end was at hand in July of 1863.

In a continuing series of posts, I will take a look at a division of soldiers that joined the Army of the Potomac just days after the fighting concluded at Gettysburg. For these soldiers, the Gettysburg Campaign was not a turning point, it was a start.

A view of Maryland Heights opposite Harper's Ferry. Photographed by James Gibson in 1865. Library of Congress

Late in the afternoon of June 15th, 1863, roughly 1,200 dejected and exhausted soldiers stumbled into Harper's Ferry after a forced march of thirty miles. Major General Robert H. Milroy road at the head of the column. The day before, Milroy had charge of a command of about 9,000 troops at Winchester, Virginia. That afternoon, Confederate forces under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell had assaulted Milroy in his fortifications, and had carried his outer works, rendering the town indefensible. Milroy ordered a retreat during the dead of night, but Ewell set an ambush for the retreating column in the darkness, completely scattering the command. The Confederates captured Milroy's artillery, wagons, and over 3,400 of his men. The rest scattered in multiple directions.
Photographic portrait of Robert H. Milroy taken
at Matthew Brady's studio in Washington.
Library of Congress.

The disaster at Winchester sent shock waves of fear throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania. It marked the first bit of hard intelligence that indicated the Army of Northern Virginia planned to cross the Potomac once again. The engagement also set in motion a chain reaction of events that would eventually see the creation of a new fighting force for the Army of the Potomac.

Strangely enough, Milroy should not have been at Winchester in the first place. He commanded the 2nd Division, 8th Army Corps in the Middle Department. This corps was led by Major General Robert C. Schenck, with headquarters at Baltimore. Schenck’s task was to defend the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. In addition to Milroy’s men, Schenck had troops strung out at important points along the railroad. The 8th Corps’ first division, under the command of Brig. Gen. Benjamin F. Kelley, mustered six brigades spread out to protect the lower Shenandoah Valley and the upper Potomac River crossings. Kelley maintained his headquarters and a strong garrison at Harper’s Ferry, while another 1,300 troops held Martinsburg, 20 miles to the northwest.

Throughout the spring, Major General Henry Halleck, General –in-Chief of Union forces, warned Schenck about Milroy’s exposed position in the Valley. Winchester was an outpost and not at all vital to defense of the railroad, and Schenck was not to attempt to defend it if attacked. Again and again Halleck told Schenck to pull the majority of Milroy’s forces out of Winchester. Again and again, Schenck ignored Halleck. Finally, on June 14th, Halleck threatened to relieve Schenck if his orders were not followed, but it was too late. By the time Schenck wired Milroy to order a retreat, Confederate forces had cut the telegraph lines. Milroy’s last instructions were to hold the town until further notice. As word of Milroy’s disaster at Winchester spread on June 15th, Halleck angrily wired General Schenck:

Major-General SCHENCK, Baltimore, Md.:
Do not give General Milroy any command at Harper’s Ferry. We have had enough of that sort of Military genius. If you have not already done so, send all of your small posts and available troops there. That place must be held.

H.W. Halleck,
With this message a mobilization of military forces began at Harper’s Ferry. In addition to the troops already present and the remnants of Milroy’s command straggling in, garrison troops from multiple posts in Maryland set out for Harper’s Ferry. They included the 14th New Jersey, the 151st New York, the 10th Vermont, and the 138th Pennsylvania. Most of these regiments had existed as essentially independent commands up to that point in the war. They were not completely raw soldiers; most had been in the service for about ten months. Yet none had witnessed combat. At Relay House, some nine miles outside of Baltimore, the 138th Pennsylvania received orders to move out at around 10 p.m. on June 16th. “We were left under the impression that we were only going on a scout,” one soldier wrote home. They soon found otherwise.

The forces gathering at Harper’s Ferry found themselves initially under the command of Brigadier General Daniel Tyler – an old school army officer and railroad engineer from the West Point Class of 1819. Tyler had recently taken over command of the troops at Martinsburg after serving in the west. He assumed control of all the forces at Harper’s Ferry after the disaster at Winchester, despite Robert Milroy outranking him. By June 19th, Tyler had concentrated roughly 10,000 men and thirty pieces of artillery. He disposed most of his forces on Maryland Heights opposite Harper’s Ferry, where he began to improve the fortifications as much as possible.  On June 26, Tyler was superseded by Major General William H. French, an officer who had been serving as a division commander in the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac.

William H. French and his staff, taken at Culpeper, Virginia in September of 1863. Library of Congress.

French was a member of the West Point Class of 1837. He served in the Seminole Wars and in the Cherokee Removal. During the Mexican War, he served on the staff of General Franklin Pierce and received three brevets for his actions at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, and Churubusco. In the fall of 1861, French was commissioned a Brigadier General. On the Peninsula, he showed leadership as a 2nd Corps brigade commander at Fair Oaks and during the Seven Days.  He ascended to division command, and led his division against the Bloody Lane at Antietam, against Mayre’s Heights at Fredericksburg, and at Chancellorsville. French arrived at Harper’s Ferry at a time when the forces stationed there had become part of a power struggle between Halleck and Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac. Hooker wanted this force to evacuate Maryland Heights, while Halleck wanted the post held. In the end, Hooker would offer his resignation over this and other mounting disagreements, and it was accepted.

On June 28th, the same day that Hooker’s replacement Maj. Gen. George G. Meade took command, he ordered Maryland Heights evacuated. Meade instructed French to designate a portion of his force to oversee the removal of as much government property as possible to Washington, and to march with the rest for Frederick, Maryland. French left roughly 4,000 men on the Heights under the command of Brig. Gen. Washington Lafayette Elliott, and set out on the evening of June 29th.

While the Army of the Potomac engaged at Gettysburg, French’s forces operated on its southern flank.  He sent a small expedition out on the evening of July 3rd under Major Shadrack Foley of the 14th Pennsylvania Cavalry to destroy the Confederate pontoon bridge at Falling Waters. He also sent forces to occupy Crampton’s Gap. On July 5th, he sent an expedition back to Harper’s Ferry. With the Confederate army in full retreat, Meade ordered French on July 6th to reoccupy Maryland Heights. On the same day, the forces under General Elliott rejoined French. With the Army of the Potomac’s numbers depleted after Gettysburg, most these troops were assigned to the battered 3rd Corps, and French assumed command of the corps on July 9th. French’s command became the third division in the corps, commanded for the time being by General Elliott.

For the men in this new division, these were exciting times. All of the regiments had seen little or no combat in their experience as soldiers so far, they had only known the tedious nature of garrison duty. One soldier in the 138th Pennsylvania wrote home and explained: “We were playing soldier for 10 long months, and now we are experiencing reality.” Meanwhile, Chaplain E.M. Haynes of the 10th Vermont recalled: 
Prior to this, our regiment and the regiments with us had acted nearly as an independent command, and had thought ourselves capable of creating quite a ripple on the great tide of events which as yet we had not seen…. Now we were swallowed up in a vast army, and were only as a drop in the mighty wave that was to surge and roll on, until it swept Rebellion from the American Continent, and rocked the Union until it rested in peace.
The excitement experienced by many of these soldiers was not reciprocated by veterans of the Army of the Potomac. Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Bartlett, a brigade commander in the 6th Corps, wrote that the new troops “amount to nothing as far as fighting is concerned.” The first two divisions of the Third Corps reserved a special antipathy for the new soldiers and their new corps commander, General French. The soldiers eventually took to labeling the Third Division “French’s Pets.” Colonel Regis DeTrobriand recalled how he felt seeing these new soldiers just days after fighting in the Wheatfield at Gettysburg:
While we were fighting in Virginia, they had guarded the railroads, and garrisoned Harper’s Ferry, Winchester, and Martinsburg, where they had made but a poor show when Ewell had presented himself. Amongst us they took the place of those we had left on the field of battle of Chancellorsville and Gettysburg; but they did not replace those. What the Third Corps gained in numbers it lost in homogeneity. On this account, the new-comers were never fully naturalized in the corps. The veterans of Sickles, refractory to the union, maintained their autonomy by the designation universally adopted amongst them: “The Third Corps, as we understand it.”
French’s Pets had joined the Army of the Potomac, but they had much to do to earn acceptance within it.

To be continued...

Sources for this post include:

War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, Series I, Volume 27, Parts 1&3.

Available Through Google Books:
History of the 10th Vermont, written by Chaplain E.M. Haynes, 1870
History of the 87th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteers, George R. Prowell, 1903
Four Years in the Army of the Potomac, Volume 3 by Regis DeTrobriand,1888

"From the 138th Regiment," Star and Banner, July 2, 1863 

Other Sources
The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command by Edwin B. Coddington, 1968
Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics & the Pennsylvania Campaign by Kent Masterson Brown, 2005

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