Wednesday, August 29, 2018

"A Little Touch of Stonewall in the Night"?

   One of the most powerful scenes in the plays of Shakespeare occurs in Henry V, in which Good King Harry ditches his kingly garments, throws on an old cloak, and walks among his soldiers on the eve of battle.  In disguise, he asks them their thoughts on victory and mere survival in the upcoming fight.  

   Did Stonewall Jackson ever do the same? Maybe....
Stonewall Jackson - Mort Kunstler 

   First, it is important to understand that generals were not all that accessible to their men. A soldier could just not wander up to Jackson, or Longstreet, or Hill, and sit down for a chat. Staff officers usually tried to shield their commanders from those around them. So, seeing Jackson or one of the others was a treat, something soldiers usually remembered. They also cheered their generals lustily when they did see them. Hence, during Jackson's march around Hooker's flank at Chancellorsville, Jackson's men were told not to cheer, lest the surprise be given away. But did Jackson ever steal into camp unawares?

   Recently, while working in the Library of Virginia, I came across a story. A Confederate soldier was sitting in the rain, at night, with compatriots, gazing longingly up at a house with light streaming through the windows. The soldier said something to the effect of, "I wish I was a general and out of the rain." Out of the darkness came another voice, "Boys, Jackson is right here with you." (Sorry, I did not copy the source.)

   I found another reference, this time from a Union soldier. While not complimentary, and written by a Union soldier, there might be some truth in the article. It appeared in the New York Times September 8, 1862: "Returning to the first field, mentioned above, the visitors were surrounded by a motley group of human beings, gaunt in their appearance, ill armed and clad, who eagerly questioned all who would listen to them about the affairs of the Government. Among the number was the guerrilla chief, Jackson, disguised in the habiliment of a private soldier. This was not the first disguise Jackson has donned to the nonce; for while returning towards Richmond from the pursuit of Gen. Banks, and at a time when he expected to be cut off by Gen. Shields, he disguised himself in citizen's attire, and actually performed the duties of a wagon-master for several days, to avoid being recognized if taken prisoner. This fact I have from one of our officers who was a prisoner, and with him at the time. Nearly all of the rebel officers present wore the uniform of private soldiers, and wore no mark whatever to show their rank."

   This passage has some interesting items to unpack. Many of the Confederate high command left their dress uniforms back in the wagons. A. P. Hill had his famous red battle shirt, R. E. Lee was often spotted wearing a colonel's uniform. Bryan Grimes's coat had no rank on it at all. Flipping through Echoes of Glory: Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy on can see several short depot-style jackets worn by company and field grade officers. It is not so much of a disguise that these officers were wearing, but simple, fabric-saving jackets that preserved their dress uniforms for special occasions, much as modern military fatigues are worn. Furthermore, I do not believe Jackson donned civilian garb and attempted to pass off as a teamster. Jackson was not Grant when it came to horsemanship. Many have written that he always rode looking like he was getting ready to fall out of the saddle at any moment. Some even thought he was under the influence of strong drink because he was such a poor rider.

   There are other accounts (fanticiful?) of Jackson donning other clothes and stealing into the Federal lines. Another story came from a hospital matron near Frederick, Maryland. She reported being visited by a civilian with a "keen eye seeming to take in everything." She checked, and reported he was "Dr. George," a veteran of the Crimean War. However, she believed Dr. George was really Stonewall Jackson "In disguise," who often went into Federal camps "and so acquaints himself with what is going on." (Greene, Whatever you Resolve to Be, xv)

   There are probably other accounts out there of Jackson moving among the troops or even the enemy wearing some sort of disguise. Many probably mistook his simple, shabby dress (at least until he was presented a new uniform by J. E. B. Stuart) as an attempt to blend in. He probably could have cared less.  As his legend took on a life of its own, whatever the true accounts were, they became embellished until perhaps, like Prince Hal, Stonewall, and the truth of his actions, were blurred with fiction.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Does "little history" matter?

Toe River Valley during the War

   This was the topic of my facebook live program this past Sunday evening: does "little history'"matter? Lately, I've been tracing this story from a neighboring county. As the local story goes, during the war, a group of "Indians" crossed over the Tennessee border into the Toe River Valley area of North Carolina. Their mission was to look for and detain deserters. They were camped on the Nolichucky River, or, along the North Toe River.

   So, this group was sent into the Toe River Valley to look for deserters (and there were a fair number of deserters and dissidents hiding out in the area). As the story goes, someone alerted the local home guard that a group of Union soldiers was camped in the area. The home guard took up a position and attacked the camp, killing three and mortally wounding four. One version of the story has dead bodies floating down the Nolichucky River. Another story has the Natives being buried by local people.

   In the existing literature, I see nothing to back up any of this story: nothing in Volume 16 of the North Carolina Troop book series, nothing in Crow's Storm in the Mountains, nothing in period letters or newspaper accounts. It could be that this story is simply folklore, a ghost story. Of course, I often state that in every piece of folklore resides some piece of truth.

Thomas's Legion fighting the 14th Illinois in 1864
   We know that at times, the Cherokee of Thomas's Legion roamed the mountainsides. In January 1863, following the salt raid in the town of Marshall, North Carolina, portions of Thomas's command were sent with other Confederate troops to the Shelton Laurel area to respond to the events in Marshall. At the same time, Thomas himself was ordered to take "200 whites and Indians of his legion, is operating in Madison, and will go into Haywood Jackson, and Cherokee Counties, North Carolina, and Clay County, Georgia, with orders to arrest all deserters and recusant conscripts and all tories who have been engaged in unlawful practices on the Tennessee line of the mountains...."   (OR ser 1, vol. 18, 810-811.) Dan Ellis, the Union guide, reported in May 1863 that Carter County was full of Indians. (Ellis, Thrilling Adventures, 147) Part of Thomas's Legion was back in the Laurel community of Madison County in January 1864, looking for outliers and deserters. (NC Troops, Volume 16, 145-146) These stories alone place the Cherokee right on the border of the Toe River Valley.

   Will I ever be able to prove this story? Maybe... Probably not... But back to my original question: does little history matter? This is not Gettysburg, or Chickamauga. A huge percent of those reading this will have never heard of this story, and many of you will not even be familiar with the Toe River Valley.  For those who might have been killed, and their families back at home, this little piece of the war was just as important in their lives as Gettysburg or Chickamauga, a place many of them never heard of until some story of those great battles filtered back into their communities.

   To answer my own question, yes, "little history" does matter.

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...