|"Brandy Station, Va. Officers in front of Winter Quarters at Army of the Potomac Headquarters," |
Feb. 1864. Library of Congress.
On March 23rd, 1864, General Orders No. 115 rocked the winter camps of the Army of the Potomac around Culpeper, Virginia:
By direction of the President of the United States, the number of army corps comprising the Army of the Potomac will be reduced to three, viz, the Second, Fifth, and Sixth Corps. The troops of the other two corps, viz, the First and Third, will be temporarily organized and distributed among the Second, Fifth, and Sixth by the commanding general, who will determine what existing organizations will retain their corps badges and other distinctive marks.These orders abolished two of the most distinguished organizations in the army. The previous year's campaigns, and principally the Battle of Gettysburg, had essentially wrecked the First and the Third, and had severely depleted the army's other three corps. For George Gordon Meade, this reorganization accomplished several objectives. First, it streamlined the army's command structure and created three full strength corps. Second, the reorganization allowed Meade to put his forces under officers he trusted, and to dispense with weaker links in the army's chain of command. The orders left soldiers like John Newton and George Sykes without a command. Meade's plans also showed a deft political touch. He had sparred with General William French during the winter, blaming his slowness for the failure of the Mine Run campaign. Now French had no place in the army. And French's Third Corps represented the strongest element of support for Meade's bitter enemy Dan Sickles, who had hoped to return to the head of his old corps after recovering from the loss of his leg at Gettysburg.
In the ranks, the changes did not go over well. As The New York Times reported on March 26, "The men find themselves among new associates, surrounded by other traditions, and led by different leaders." Writing after the war, Meade's Chief of Staff Andrew A. Humphreys admitted that "the history and association of these organizations were different, and when they were merged in other organizations their identity was lost and their pride and espirit de corps wounded." Not everyone saw the practical reasons for the changes, and only saw political maneuvering. One soldier of the Third Corps's 17th Maine remembered:
It seemed hard to many of us that the organization that had furnished the country with such men as Heintzelman, Kearney, Howard, Berry, Hooker, Sickles, Richardson, Birney, Whipple, Jameson, Robinson, and a host of others, should lose its identity for the sake of personal feeling.Yet not all the soldiers affected by the revamped command structure minded. Since it joined the Army of the Potomac following the battle of Gettysburg, the third division of the Third Corps had been treated as outcasts by the corps's original two divisions. The veterans of the corps resented French's ascension to command, and disdained the sparse battle record of the new division he brought with him to the army, labeling it "French's Pets." During the Mine Run Campaign that fall, a portion of the third division acquitted itself well against Lee's veterans at the Battle of Payne's Farm (Locust Grove), but French's overall slowness and indecision upset the timetable for Meade's plans. As the army went into winter quarters around Brandy Station, the third division had yet to win over their comrades.
Meade's plan for reorganization displayed an understanding of the realities of unit cohesion within the Third Corps. He decided to keep all of the First Corps together, consolidating the fighting force's three divisions into two and adding it to the Fifth Corps. He would not keep the Third Corps together however. Its first two divisions - the "old Third Corps" - joined the Second Corps, while the third division would move to John Sedgwick's Sixth Corps. While most of the veterans involved in the reorganization received permission to keep their corps insignia, French's Pets did not. Having failed to gain acceptance in the Third Corps, the third division would seek to forge a new identity in the Sixth.
The soldiers of the third division did not resent the change like many of their comrades with deeper connections to their corps identities. Some may have even welcomed it. A soldier of the 10th Vermont recalled that, while "some complaint followed the breaking up of Third Corps...there was no heart burnings with us." Meanwhile, Colonel J. Warren Keifer of the 110th Ohio, writing about corps ensignias, explained that the "Third Division for a time adhered to the 'diamond', but later, wore both proudly, and finally rejoiced alone under the 'Greek cross.'"
Yet once again, the soldiers of the new third division, Sixth Corps found themselves with the task of convincing hardened veterans that they belonged. "Thus when we cast off the diamond-shaped badge of the 3rd Army Corps," wrote Osceola Lewis of the 138th Pennsylvania:
and adopted the "Blue Cross" of the 6th, we found many veterans among our new comrades, who complained that we should assume the right and privilege. "What have they ever done," or "where did they ever see any service," they would sometimes ask, forgetting that the blood already spilled by the 3rd Division, if not great in quantity, was very precious in quality.To many in the Army of the Potomac, the "quality" of the Blue Cross division remained to be seen. While their service at Payne's Farm in November of 1863 loomed large in the formation of their own identity, the small action accomplished little, and failed to impress the rest of the army. The division could not shake the reputation it had earned as a result of disastrous events in the Shenandoah Valley that some of its units had taken part in while under the command of Robert H. Milroy at the start of the Gettysburg Campaign.
|James B. Ricketts. Library of Congress.|
|Truman Seymour. Library of Congress.|
As the temperatures rose and the roads continued to harden that spring, Ricketts and his men looked forward to the coming campaign season, and another chance to win acceptance in the Army of the Potomac.