Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Who rode with Venable to find Stuart at Gettysburg?


Veterans left us a great deal of information about the events in which they participated during the war. At times though, they skipped over small details that seem to haunt us as we try to tell their stories. Such is the case of Charles Venable, and the search for Gen. J. E. B. Stuart on July 2, 1863.

Charles Venable 
A brief summary: Stuart is off riding around the Army of the Potomac. Stuart is supposed to link up with Gen. Richard Ewell, but cannot quite find him.  So, Stuart sends Andrew R. Venable to look for Ewell.

In 1907, Venable writes Col. John S. Mosby about the events: "Dear Sir: On the Gettysburg campaign General Stuart's command arrived at Dover, Penn., during the night of June 30th, 1863, where, learning that General Early's command was marching towards Gettysburg, I was directed by General Stuart to take a detachment of thirty mounted men and go in the direction pursued by General Early, to learn the purpose of General Lee. I left Dover before daylight of July 1 with the detachment of thirty men and, after skirmishing all day with a regiment which was pursing us from Dover, we overtook General Early about 4 P.m., just approaching Gettysburg, where upon my arrival I reported to General Lee, and found him on the hill west of Gettysburg. On making my report, he ordered a squadron of cavalry to go in search of General Stuart at once." (Mosby, Stuart's Cavalry in the Gettysburg Campaign, 184-185)

JEB Stuart
So just which squadron of cavalry rode with Venable to find Stuart? When Stuart sets out on his raid, he takes three brigades of cavalry with him (W. H. F. Lee's brigades, under John Chambliss; Fitzhugh Lee's brigade, and Wade Hampton's brigade). Robert E. Lee is left with four cavalry brigades (John D. Imboden's brigade, Albert G. Jenkins' brigade, Beverly Robertson's brigade, and Grumble Jones' brigade). Lee has 12 regiments, plus McNeill's Rangers, at his disposal. Of course, we know that Lee does not utilize the cavalry he has at hand. That's why Heth's men blindly stumble into the Federals at Gettysburg on June 30/July 1.

Back to my question: just who does Lee send with Venable? Could it be portions of the 39th Battalion, Virginia Cavalry? Maybe. Eric Wittenberg and J. D. Petruzzi, in their book Plenty of Blame to Go Around advance that as a possibility (good read, by the way). However, no one in the 39th Battalion actually says that. Records are sparse. Franklin Walters writes his company was on picket duty behind the lines. Sergeant Martin V. Gander (Company C) recalled that he "placed four guards around the old stone house on the hill, the personal headquarters of Gen. Lee the evening of July 1, 1863." Members of Company A reported that they were detailed to accompany the engineers as they mapped the surrounding roads. How many men are even in a squadron? Four? Two companies?


Was it a part of Mosby's command? Or the Comanches? Maybe in this morass of books and articles on my desk there is an answer...

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Peering into the headquarters of the ANV




Lee's bed, table, and camp chest. (Museum of the Confederacy) 
   For several weeks, I was reading deeply into the history of the cavalry branch of the Army of Northern Virginia. I am writing a history of a cavalry battalion attached to that command. However, I have discovered that my focus needed to shift. Lately, I've been reading more on the headquarters staff of the ANV. They were the men who came into daily contact with the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry.  There are a couple of good books on staff operations: Bartholomees's Buff Facings and Gilt Buttons comes to mind. Most of my reading has been more focused on the letters of staff officers - Walter Taylor, Thomas Goree, and Jedediah Hotchkiss, just to name a few.

   Given the number of men involved in the Army of Northern Virginia, there are surprisingly few accounts of what those headquarters actually looked like. Well, maybe it is not that surprising. The common soldier in the ranks, and his regimental or brigade commander, would seldom see the headquarters complex. They were busy with their daily routines, and Lee's staff went to great lengths to keep Lee from their gaze. We are left with a few descriptions of what the ANV headquarters looked like.

   In late 1862, between the Maryland Campaign and the battle of Fredericksburg, a British observer painted this picture of HQ. It originally appears in Blackwood's monthly, and at the first of 1863, in several British newspapers:
   "Lee's head-quarters (at Winchester) consisted of about seven or eight pole tents, pitched with their backs to a stake fence, upon a piece of ground so rocky that it was unpleasant to ride over it: its only recommendation being a little stream of good water which flowed close by the general's tents. In front of the tents were some three or four wheeled wagons, drawn up without any regularity, and a number of horses roamed loose about the field. The servants, who were of course slaves, and the mounted soldiers called 'couriers,' who always accompany each general of division in the field, were unprovided with tents, and slept in or under the wagons... The staff are crowded together two or three in a tent; none of them are allowed to carry more baggage than a small box each, and his own kit is but very little larger. Each one who approaches him does so with marked respect, although there is none of that bowing and flourishing of forage caps which occurs in the presence of European generals..." (Birmingham Daily Post January 1, 1863)

Shadow of '64 (John Paul Strain) 
Walter Taylor, one of Lee's most trusted staff officers, left this description of headquarters after the battle of Fredericksburg, in his biography of Lee, published in 1906: "The headquarters camp of General Lee was never of such a character as to proclaim its importance. An unpretentious arrangement of five or six army-tens, one or two wagons for transporting equipage and personal effects, with no display of bunting, and no parade of sentinels or guards, only a few orderlies, was all there was of it. General Lee persistently refused to occupy a house, and was content with an ordinary wall-tent, but little, if any, larger than those about it." (Taylor,  General Lee, his campaigns in Virginia, 156)

   Francis Dawson, a member of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's staff, disagreed with Taylor about the lack of bunting being displayed. He wrote after the war that there "was no pomp or circumstance about [Lee's] headquarters, and no sign of rank of the occupant, other than the Confederate flag displayed in front of the tent of Colonel Taylor."

   John Esten Cooke, in his biography of General Lee, wrote that ANV headquarters in the fall and winter of 1863, was "in a wood on the southern slope of the spur called Clarke's Mountain, a few miles east of Orange Court House. . . . Here his tents had been pitched, in a cleared space amid pines and cedars; and the ingenuity of the 'couriers,' as messengers and orderlies were called in the Southern army, had fashioned alleys and walks leading to the various tents, the tent of the commanding general occupying the centre." (Cooke, A Life of Gen. Robert E. Lee, 371)

   An unknown newspaper correspondent wrote sometime in the fall of the 1863: "I rode over yesterday to Gen. Lee's headquarters, which consisted of cloth tents pitched in a grove of oaks, surrounding an old meeting house. I found Gen. Lee sitting by a log fire at the mouth of his tent, with one of his aides, enjoying a social conversation over a late Federal newspaper." (The Times-Picayune November 26, 1863 [originally from the Raleigh Progress])

   There are many cases of Lee being offered a house to use. Early in the war, he often refused. Even the famous Lee's Headquarters House at Gettysburg appears only to have been used for meetings. Lee's tent was pitched across the street. However, after Gettysburg, when Lee's health began to decline, he did use a house from time to time.

Lee's HQ in Petersburg 
   At times, there appears to not even be a tent. At Appomattox, as Lee met with Longstreet, Gordon, and Fitzhugh Lee, a soldier recalled that "Lee's headquarters were then [in] a little field close by the edge of a piece of woods; no house was near, nor were the headquarters tents pitched. The army commanders bivouacked in the open air. There was a large fire of long logs burning." (Staunton Spectator November 9, 1887) Another soldier, bearing a dispatch to Lee's Appomattox Headquarters, wrote: "Finally we found two ambulances and two rail fires. Gen. Longstreet was at the first one... At the next fire was Gen. R. E. Lee lying down on an oil cloth and a blanket. I do not know whether he was asleep or not, but at our approach he rose to a sitting posture, and the firelight fell on his face." (The Owensboro Messenger August 15, 1885)

   Are there other accounts of Lee's headquarters out there? Probably. I'm continuing to search...

Monday, July 16, 2018

Confederate Courier Service

Col. Walter Taylor

For the past few days, I've been reading through Lee's Adjutant: The Wartime Letters of Colonel Walter Herron Taylor, 1861-1865 (edited by R. Lockwood Tower). Taylor served on the staff of Robert E. Lee throughout the war. The letters were written (mostly) to his sister and his fiancée. There is much good information in these letters, although from time to time, Taylor writes that he will not bore his loved ones with military matters (I wish he had bored them more!).

Taylor writes on May 22, 1864, to his fiancée Bettie that her letters to him could be dropped off at the Adjutant General's office: "a courier comes up from the Adjt Gnls office & can always deliver my letters safely." (161) My question is this: who were these couriers? Were they members of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry, or where they assigned to Gen. Samuel Cooper?

This leads to a larger discussion about communication between the authorities in Richmond and the Confederate armies in the field. For now, we will focus on the Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate commands in Georgia, or further west, are a different matter we will look at in the future. Lee's army was close enough to Richmond to be in direct communication.  Lee frequently visited Richmond, conferring with Davis about military matters. At the same time, Lee was connected to Richmond via the telegraph. While this is a somewhat grey area in scholarship, it seems that when in stationary or winter camp, dispatches would arrive via the wire. There are several members of the 39th Batt. VA Cav. that state they did duty in the telegraph office, delivering those messages to the commanding general. Speculation on my part: the telegraph office was probably located at the closest railroad depot. An officer or clerk would be present, transcribe the message, and give it to a courier to deliver to headquarters.

Telegraph lines, however, could be tapped. Mosby's Rangers did it several times during the War. Important documents undoubtedly were sent by courier to Lee's command. Taylor's letter leads me to believe that the courier service was regular. Of course, he is writing in the midst of the Overland Campaign, when regular telegraphic communications might have been interrupted. Probably one of the most famous was the telegraph that Lee sent the War Department in April 1865, telling the president that Richmond and Petersburg had to be abandoned.
Confederate scout

Who were these couriers delivering messages and dispatches between the Adjutant General's office and Lee's Headquarters? At this point, I really don't know. I do know that couriers were a vital part of army operations, relaying orders and intelligence not only on the battlefield, but during downtimes as well. From my research so far, it would appear that delivering messages was the prime occupation of the 39th Batt. VA Cav. Of course, many men from traditional regiments were employed as aides and couriers during the war. Brig. Gen. James H. Lane used two of his brothers in this role. One brother was killed at Chancellorsville and the other at Spotsylvania Court House.

PS: on September 4, 1861, the Oneida Independent Cavalry Company was mustered into service under the command of Capt. Daniel P. Mann. The company was from New York. They served as escorts, did guard duty, and provided couriers for the Army of the Potomac. They were discharged and mustered out of service on June 13, 1865. This would be the Federal equivalent of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry.  

Monday, June 25, 2018

Following along with McNeill's Rangers


   As many of you know, I've been reading a great deal about Confederate cavalry in the east in preparation for my own history of the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. Recently, I picked up Steve French's Phantoms of the South Fork. French's work covers the partisan war in the lower Shenandoah Valley and in Hardy County, and surrounding counties in West Virginia. McNeill's Rangers were originally under the command of John H. McNeill, until his mortal wounding in November 1864. Command then passed to his son, Jesse McNeill, who held sway until the end of the war.

   McNeill's Rangers was only one of two partisan bands to escape the purge by the Confederate government in February 1864. Mosby's Rangers was the other group that survived. The authorities believed that partisan groups caused more damage than good and rolled many of them into regular regiments, much to their chagrin. In many cases, the partisan war was personal: soldiers were literally fighting in and around their own homes, and at times, were fighting their own neighbors. Their most effective work was to ambush supply trains destined for far-flung Federal outposts, depriving Federal soldiers of supplies. At other times, they waylaid small detachments of cavalry soldiers and, later in the war, trains. Often, the partisan groups would rob civilians as well. The comparisons to some of my own work with the partisan war in the mountains of Western North Carolina and East Tennessee are uncanny, although the Federal and Confederate actions were more organized in the area where McNeill's men were fighting.

   Quite possibly, the most famous episode for McNeill's Rangers was the night in February 1865 when the Rangers stole into Cumberland, Maryland, and captured Maj. Gen. George Cook and Brig. Gen. Benjamin Kelly.

   Overall, the book is a good read, although at times I had trouble keeping up with names. The FPhantoms of the South Fork is a good addition to your library.
ederal forces in the area trying to combat McNeill and other partisan groups changed frequently. It could also use better maps. French's research is impressive. If you are interested in books about fringe Confederate units,

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Carrying Jackson's Flag


A few weeks ago, I wrote a post asking about who carried Robert E. Lee's headquarters' flag during the war. The short answer was "whoever was assigned to Lee's courier group for a given day of campaign."

In the discussion that followed, it was suggested that headquarters' flags were not carried on the field, but used to mark the various camps of the army's top brass. In the earlier post, I included a story of Jackson's headquarters flag being used during the Seven Days campaign. Here is the previous story:

 In 1931, J. Churchill Cooke, 4th Virginia Cavalry, left us this reminiscence: "My company, the Hanover Troop, was an old organization in existence many years before the war... The company was composed of men from all parts of the county, many of them from that part of the county where several battles were fought. Before Jackson reached Mechanicsville, all of the men of my company were assigned to different generals as guides, scouts, and couriers. The captain of my company rode up to me with a flag and said: "Sergeant, as you are from the upper part of the county and don't know this part, I can't assign you to any of the generals, but here is Jackson's headquarters flag, which I shall give you to carry.' I took the flag and said I hoped I would not disgrace it. I reported to General Jackson as his flag bearer. He sent me word not to stay very close to him, only keep him in sight, which instructions I tried to comply with. I was with Jackson and in sight of him during the Seven Days." (Confederate Veteran Vol. 38, 248)

Recently, as I was reading Blackford's Letters from Lee's Army, I came across another story. This one dates to the time after the battle of Cedar Mountain, probably at the beginning of the Second Manassas battle. Blackford was serving as a courier and was attached to Jackson's staff. Blackford writes: "While moving on the crest of the hill a solid shot from the enemy's battery passed through the horse of my sergeant Bob Isbell, who was carrying General Jackson's battle flag, the same flag he had waved at Slaughter Mountain. The horse fell over perfectly dead; it was between me and the General, its head lapping on the General's horse and its rump on mine..." (117) 


Jackson is With You by Don Troiani 

To backtrack just a little, at Cedar Mountain, Jackson was trying to rally his broken left. In the midst of the battle, he seized the colors of a nearby regiment (possibly the 21st Virginia), and cried "Jackson is with you!" A couple of thoughts: where were Jackson's flag and flag bearer during the time? Is the flag the one that Bob Isbell is carrying? On the other hand, Jackson probably grabbed the regimental flag, trying to rally that particular regiment.

Given the date, I assume Bob Isbell (Robert B. Isbell, Co. B, 2nd Virginia Cavalry) is carrying a First National Flag. I would surely like to know where that flag is...

Monday, June 04, 2018

Reading about the ANV Cavalry


Since taking on the 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry project, I decided that I needed to immerse myself in the history of the cavalry in the Army of Northern Virginia. So for the past seven or eight weeks, all I have read has been tied to that fabled group of cavaliers. My exposure in the past has been limited to Burke Davis's JEB Stuart: The Last Cavalier, which I read when I was young, Fighting for General Lee: Confederate General Rufus Barringer and the North Carolina Cavalry Brigade, Thomas' Wade Hampton's Iron Scouts, and whatever I picked up while reading Freeman's Lee's Lieutenants, Glatthaar's General Lee's Army, or the numerous books on various battles fought in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

Looking through the bibliography of Longacre's Lee's Cavalrymen: A History of the Mounted Forces of the Army of Northern Virginia, it is quite clear that there are quite a few accounts written by the cavalrymen themselves. Those accounts are always the most important. I enjoy hearing from the soldiers themselves. Blackford's Letters from Lee's Army is a fantastic account from a member of the 2nd Virginia Cavalry. About half way through the war, Blackford transferred to staff duties under Longstreet, so his accounts on cavalry operations are limited (But an interesting book none the less).

On my too-read list are Myers' The Comanches: A History of White's Battalion, Virginia Cavalry; McDonald's A History of the Laurel Brigade; Keen-Mewborn's 43rd Battalion Virginia Cavalry; French's Phantoms of the South Fork: Captain McNeill and His Rangers; Trout's with Pen and Saber: The Letters and Diaries of JEB Stuart's Staff Officers; and maybe Werts' Cavalryman of the Lost Cause. As you can see, there is a mixture of old and new titles in this list. I'm sure I'll probably add a title or two before it is all over. 

So, what are some of your favorite books on the mounted arm in the Army of Northern Virginia?

Friday, May 25, 2018

Who carried Robert E. Lee's flag?


 Earlier this week, I asked this question on my facebook page: who carried Robert E. Lee's headquarters flag? The short answer would be, after November 1862, it was a member of Company C, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry. So far, the name of the soldier(s) eludes me and my efforts to discover it.

This however, leads to a larger question about Confederate generals and their headquarters flags. Did all Confederate generals have one? How many survive? Were they uniform or did the style vary from general to general?

Robert E Lee's first HQ flag 
The surviving headquarters flag of Robert E. Lee is probably the most famous. According to the research of the former Museum of the Confederacy (now the American Civil War Center), this flag was used by Lee from 1862  to 1863. It is unknown when he acquired this flag (believed to have been made by his wife), but we can assume it was after June 1862 when he was tapped to replace the wounded Joseph E. Johnston. He used this flag through the battle of Gettysburg. Sometime in late 1863 or early 1864, Lee replaced this headquarters flag with a Second National. At the end of the war, the Second National was cut up, instead of being surrendered. As an interesting aside, Lee's first headquarters flag was boxed up in the final days of the war and sent to Charlotte with other papers. It was found by a Government official and removed before the other papers and flags were turned over to the Federals.

Looking beyond R. E. Lee, there are the famous silk ANV-pattern flags made by the Cary sisters of Baltimore, Maryland, and presented to generals Joseph E. Johnston, Earl Van Dorn, and PGT Beauregard in the fall of 1861. Other Confederate generals who used traditional ANV battle flags as headquarters flags include Edmund Kirby Smith, Arnold Elzey, Fitzhugh Lee, and Joseph B. Kershaw. James H. Lane makes mention of surrendering his headquarters flag at Appomattox, but just what this flag looked like is unknown. The North Carolina Museum of History has the battle flag-style headquarters flags of Rufus Barringer and Bryan Grimes.
Robert F. Hoke's HQ flag

Several Confederate generals adopted Second Nationals after its adoption in May 1863. Robert E. Lee's Second National has already been mentioned, and several pieces of the flag reside at the American Civil War Museum. The Museum also has the Second National headquarters flags of JEB Stuart, Simon B. Buckner, and Jubal Early. A Second National Confederate flag, possibly the first one ever made, was draped over the casket of Stonewall Jackson following his death on May 10, 1863. The North Carolina Museum of History has Robert F. Hoke's Second National
Daniel H. Maury's HQ flag

There were variants, of course (we are talking about Confederates, right?). Samuel French supposedly used a captured V Corps Headquarters flag for his own headquarters. William L. Jackson used a variant of a Second National.  Lawrence O. Branch used a First National. Dabney H. Maury had a flag with a white border, red field, white Christian cross, and stars.

Lawrence O. Branch's HQ flag. 
Back to my original question: was there someone on staff whose job it was to carry the headquarters' flag? Maybe, but probably not.  In 1931, J. Churchill Cooke, 4th Virginia Cavalry, left us this reminiscence: "My company, the Hanover Troop, was an old organization in existence many years before the war... The company was composed of men from all parts of the county, many of them from that part of the county where several battles were fought. Before Jackson reached Mechanicsville, all of the men of my company were assigned to different generals as guides, scouts, and couriers. The captain of my company rode up to me with a flag and said: "Sergeant, as you are from the upper part of the county and don't know this part, I can't assign you to any of the generals, but here is Jackson's headquarters flag, which I shall give you to carry.' I took the flag and said I hoped I would not disgrace it. I reported to General Jackson as his flag bearer. He sent me word not to stay very close to him, only keep him in sight, which instructions I tried to comply with. I was with Jackson and in sight of him during the Seven Days." (Confederate Veteran Vol. 38, 248)

Company C, 39th Battalion Virginia Cavalry was assigned to Lee as his personal company of scouts, guides, and couriers. However, it appears that portions of the company rotated in and out every day. A detail of men would report for duty. It is my belief that if Lee needed to go someplace with his headquarters flag, a member of the day's detail was assigned to bear it. It would be feasible to say every member of the company might have carried one of those flags during the war.