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.