Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

"Perfect clarity of understanding..."

Because I am now in the process of getting my research from this summer published, I wanted to post a few of the letters, dispatches, and telegrams that I found during my research for the project.

The dispatch below is from the George B. McClellan Papers at the Library of Congress. It is one of the strongest examples of the chaos inflicting Union forces in and around Washington D.C. following the Federal defeat at Second Manassas. Fitz John Porter, the commander of the Fifth Corps, had a tougher task than most. The Fifth Corps had the distinction of being involved in both the Peninsula and Second Manassas battles, meaning that it had suffered more than its fair share of casualties, sickness, and stragglers in the weeks preceding the Maryland Campaign. Thus, when George McClellan and his staff were attempting to assess Federal strength in early September, the Fifth Corps was a problem. September 1st and 2nd saw McClellan and his staff writing to different commanders inquiring about the strength and composition of their commands. On September 5th, Porter wrote to Seth Williams, Assistant Adjutant General of the Army of the Potomac, informing him that, because of the heavy losses in the officer corps and the disorganized state of the ranks, it would be very difficult to provide any reliable strength numbers for his corps. On the same day that Porter was informing Williams that he couldn't get an estimate of his strength, Stonewall Jackson and thousands of Confederates were crossing over the Potomac River and into Maryland. Thus, McClellan was starting the campaign with a serious disadvantage.

Halls Hill, VA, Sept 5, 1862
Gen. S. Williams
I find it almost impossible to get a report of the strength of the command. Colonels and Adjt Generals and Assistant Adjutant Generals either killed, wounded, sick, or absent. Have destroyed everything. New (books) are employed and records are with the Commands. I have done my best and I must beg you to be patient.
Will send report at the earliest moment.
F.J. Porter,
Major General Comdg.

Many historians use certainty and hindsight to excoriate officers in the past; yet, as Joe Harsh wrote in Taken at the Flood,Perfect clarity of understanding was impossible, and even reasonable clarity usually came long after decisions had to be rendered.” McClellan would leave Washington with uncertainty in his mind over the strength and condition of his forces. That uncertainty was a result of dispatches like this one.

(Fitz John Porter to Seth Williams, September 5, 1862, George B. McClellan Papers, Box A78, Reel 31, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division) 

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