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)

Friday, January 27, 2012

James Garfield NHS Major Battles of the Civil War Series

Greetings all, sorry for the paucity of posts on here as of late. I have been working away at quite a few projects, one of which I want to let you all know about. While I am home this winter, I am doing some volunteer work for the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. The site consists of the house where Garfield and his family lived when he was elected the 20th President of the United States, as well as grounds around the house, a few outbuildings such as Garfield's campaign office, and a visitor center and museum. For those who haven't seen the site, it is worth a trip.

This year, to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial, in a partnership with the Mentor public library, the Garfield National Historic Site is conducting a series of public lectures on the major battles of the war, as they occurred 150 years ago. There is one program per month (with the exception of July), and the programs are designed to cover the major battles as they occurred. Thus, in February, the topic will be the battle for Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee, and yours truly will be presenting and leading the program. It is at noon on February 8th at the Mentor Public Library, and it is completely free of charge. The program will last from 45 minutes to an hour, and it will be covering Grant's campaign for Forts Henry and Donelson and its implications on the western theater as well as the overall conflict. The program will be on the lower level of the library in the James R. Garfield room. If you know for sure that you will be attending, please call ahead (440-255-8811) or click on this link to make sure there is enough seating for all those in attendance. Again, the program is free of charge.

Here is a link for a page advertising the programs through the rest of the year. I will be working on developing programs for several of these battles, as well as leading a few more myself, including those on Shiloh, the Seven Days, 2nd Manassas, and of course, Antietam. On behalf of the James A. Garfield NHS, we hope you can attend some of these events. I have put a link below to the 2012 special event calendar for the Garfield site. Please look through the events and if you live in the area, stop by to help commemorate the sesquicentennial at a fascinating historic site.

Garfield NHS 2012 Special Event Calendar

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

January 10, 1862: Colonel James A. Garfield and the Battle of Middle Creek

On January 10, 1862, James A. Garfield, a school president and State Senator from Ohio, became a battle tested leader. On that date, the little known Battle of Middle Creek was fought in the wilderness of Eastern Kentucky. While the casualties from Middle Creek were quite small, it was a battle with great strategic importance for Kentucky, as well as for the life and career of Garfield.

Brigadier General James A. Garfield (his commission dated to January 10, 1862, the date of the Battle of Middle Creek)

When the fever of war spread across the country in early 1861, men from every walk of life began to enlist. For James Abram Garfield, sitting in the Ohio State Senate, the moment was powerful. He and his close friend, Jacob Donelson Cox, resolved to do all they could to aid the Union cause in putting down the rebellion. For months, Garfield had been preaching the gospel of abolitionism, seemingly welcoming the coming war for its promise of destroying slavery once and for all. In January, Garfield wrote to a friend using a theme of divine retribution which would reappear in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural four years later: “I am inclined to believe that the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that ‘without the shedding of blood there is no remission.’ All that is left for us… is to arm and prepare to defend ourselves and the Federal Government.”[1] Two days after Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, Garfield expressed a resolve to see the war through to victory no matter the cost: “I hope we will never stop short of complete subjugation. Better lose a million men in battle than allow the government to be overthrown. The war will soon assume the shape of Slavery and Freedom. The world will so understand it, and I believe that the final outcome will resound to the good of humanity.”[2]

That spring and summer, as Ohio recruited men to serve in defending the Union, Garfield and U.S. Senator John Sherman traversed the state giving patriotic addresses to rouse the citizenry to action. The Portage County Democrat spoke well of Garfield’s talents as an orator and abiding belief in the Union cause: “Garfield goes forth, like an apostle of Liberty, a preacher of righteousness, proclaiming the Gospel which demands equal obedience to God and resistance to tyrants.”[3] While Jacob Cox and others went straight from politics to the army, Garfield spent the first few months of the war serving political and patriotic needs, making trips for Ohio Governor William Dennison to secure supplies and material for Ohio soldiers. In July, Garfield’s opportunity to don a uniform arrived when Dennison offered him a the position of Lieutenant Colonel for one of Ohio’s new regiments. In August, Garfield was sworn in as a Lieutenant Colonel of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He quickly went to work organizing and recruiting the regiment, getting students from the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, where he was the school’s president, to enlist in droves.[4] By November of 1861, the 42nd Ohio was mustered into service with Garfield as its Colonel. On December 14, after spending several weeks at Camp Chase in Columbus, the 42nd Ohio was ordered to report to Prestonsburg, Kentucky by Ohio Department commander Don Carlos Buell.

Upon his arrival in Kentucky, Garfield met directly with Buell and was given a daunting task, especially given his lack of military experience. In Eastern Kentucky, Confederate forces commanded by Brigadier General Humphrey Marshal were advancing north through the Sandy Valley, threatening the flank of Union forces in the state. Buell assigned Garfield the task of stopping Marshall, and to do so, he organized the 18th brigade of the Army of Ohio, consisting of the 42nd O.V.I., 40th O.V.I., 14th K. V. I., and the 22nd K.V.I., along with several companies of Ohio and Kentucky cavalry forces. [5] As Garfield planned for the upcoming campaign in Louisville, his men began moving into place. By December 19, the 42nd O.V.I. had reached Catlettsburg and began preparing for the task ahead. After proceeding 20 miles south to Louisa, Garfield rejoined his soldiers, just in time to see the weather turn colder with rain becoming snow. In early January, with Garfield’s men camped along the Big Sandy River, Marshall’s Confederate force was 18 miles away at Paintsville.

Despite lacking artillery and being outnumbered by at least 1,000 men (Marshall had 2,500 troops, Garfield had 1,500), Garfield still followed out his task and advanced against Marshall’s forces. By dividing his smaller force into three pieces and moving simultaneously on three separate avenues of advance, Garfield gave Marshall the impression that his numbers were much greater than they were, thus causing a Confederate retreat from Paintsville and giving the Union forces a bloodless first victory in the campaign. After days of slowly moving south toward the Confederate forces, on January 10, Garfield’s men caught up with Marshall’s Confederates near Middle Creek.

The Battle of Middle Creek itself lasted but a few hours. After encountering Confederate skirmishers near the Left Fork Branch of Middle Creek, Garfield ordered a cavalry reconnaissance to determine the enemy strength in the area. After the enemy fired on the cavalry troops, giving away their positions, Garfield ordered several assaults aimed at testing the Confederate lines. Garfield largely attacked Marshall’s right flank, which was well entrenched, making his men vulnerable to heavy casualties or even a route should a strong counter attack have been mounted. During that afternoon, Garfield watched and directed the fight from a hill known as Grave Yard Point, looking down onto the valley and battle below. He later described the scene: “The whole hill was enclosed in such a volume of smoke as rolls from the mouth of a volcano. Thousands of gun flashes leaped like lightning from the clouds. Every minute the fight grew hotter. In my agony of anxiety I prayed to God for the reinforcement to appear.”[6] Garfield’s prayers worked well that day because just as his last reserves had been sent into the fight, 700 troops from his command arrived from Paintsville, having made the long and arduous march that day to arrive at the field at precisely the right moment in the battle. Garfield’s reinforcements strengthened his lines at the base of the valley, but they arrived too late in the day to mount another frontal assault. That evening, due to the repeated attacks by Garfield’s men, Marshall began withdrawing his Confederate forces south, back toward western Virginia. More action would be necessary to push Marshall out of the state altogether, but Garfield’s victory at Middle Creek was a major step in keeping Eastern Kentucky free of a Confederate presence.

Compared to later battles in the war, Middle Creek barely registers on the casualty scale. The total number of killed, wounded, and missing amounted to less than 100 (27 Union, 65 Confederate). Yet, while the casualties were light, for many soldiers who fought at Middle Creek, it was their first taste of war. Garfield himself wrote that “It was a terrible sight … to walk over the battle field and see the horrible faces of the dead rebels stretched on the hill in all shapes and positions.”[7] As a member of the Disciple church in the Western Reserve, Garfield had at one time been a pacifist. However, with the progression of his studies, his religious and political beliefs came to change. The former pacifist and future president would later vindicate the justice of war by proclaiming at a Cleveland Sanitary Fair in February 1864, “We have all frequently heard of the horrors of war, but we have not so often thought of the horrors of peace. Bad as war may be, grater evils sometimes emerge from a long peace.”[8] Garfield believed that prolonged peace could make national life “stagnant,” allowing citizens to forget the dear principles they loved and the price required to maintain such principles. In war he saw opportunities for greatness that needed to be seized. In the Civil War, he saw an opportunity for national redemption and the abolition of slavery, making the sacrifices of battle worthwhile.

For his actions at Middle Creek, Garfield received a commission as a Brigadier General, dating to January 10, 1862. Both he and the 42nd O.V.I. went on to many other feats in the war, but their journey through combat started at the small Battle of Middle Creek 150 years ago today. As 42nd O.V.I. veteran Frank Holcomb Mason wrote in his 1876 history of the regiment, Garfield’s spirit and leadership in recruiting the regiment and in leading them at Middle Creek set the tone and inspired the men for the rest of the war:

It was due largely to [Garfield’s] enthusiastic efforts that the Regiment was made up of some of the best material that Ohio sent into the field. The careful, laborious education, the discipline, the quickening of individual self-respect that the Regiment underwent at his hands while in Camp Chase, were never lost upon its men. Long after he had gone to other duties the recollection of his words was a source of inspiration to the men, and as they went into their first fight at Middle Creek against overwhelming numbers with serene confidence because their trusted Colonel had sent them, so afterwards they fought and marched as though conscious that the eve of their first commander was still upon them.[9]

[1] Allan Peskin, Garfield (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1978), 79.
[2] Ibid., 86.
[3] Portage County Democrat, April 24, 1861.
[4] Today, the school is Hiram College.
[5] O.V.I. and K.V.I. stand for Ohio Volunteer Infantry and Kentucky Volunteer Infantry, respectively.
[6] Peskin, 117.
[7] Peskin, 119.
[8] Portage County Democrat, March 2, 1864
[9] Frank Holcomb Mason, The 42nd Ohio Infantry (Cleveland: Cobb, Andrews, & Co. Publishers, 1876), 20.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The OTHER Romney Campaign...

While much of our national attention is currently devoted to the race for the Republican nomination for the presidency, on this January 6th it is another Romney Campaign which comes to mind. No, not the campaign of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to win the presidency; this Romney Campaign occurred 150 years ago. It was Major General Stonewall Jackson’s attempt to secure the lower (northern) end of the Shenandoah Valley by driving away Federal troops from Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia).

Jackson assumed command of the Shenandoah Valley District in early November, 1861. He was sent to western Virginia to protect and defend the Shenandoah Valley, a crucial piece of real estate for the Confederacy. The Shenandoah was not as pro-secessionist as other parts of the state, yet the people of the Valley supported their state and the southern cause. Running south to north, the Valley stretched 150 miles from Lexington, Virginia, to Harpers Ferry and the Potomac River. The resources of the Shenandoah were crucial for Confederate forces if they were to sustain a war against the more populous and powerful northern states. While it did not lead directly to Richmond, should a Federal army get into the Valley, significant damage could be done to Confederate transportation, supplies, and morale, deep in the heart of Virginia.

Upon arriving in Winchester in 1861, Jackson took stock of his situation. Sitting at the lower end of the valley, Winchester was key to keeping Federal armies at bay. However, in late 1861, Federal forces were scattered all over northwestern Virginia. Additionally, in Western Maryland, Major General Nathaniel Banks commanded a force of several thousand; however, Major General George B. McClellan’s hesitation to move and overestimation of Confederate forces around Manassas, Virginia which kept Banks at bay. Thus, Jackson’s more pressing concern was the town of Romney, sitting 43 miles to the west of Winchester and occupied by 4,000 Federal troops commanded by Union General Benjamin Franklin Kelley. After requesting several thousand additional troops commanded by Brigadier General William W. Loring, Jackson proposed to drive Kelley’s Federal troops out of Romney, thus removing a threat to Winchester and the Shenandoah. In late December, Jackson sent smaller forces to attempt to destroy Dam Number 5 on the C & O Canal, a few miles north of Williamsport, Maryland. These smaller raids were preliminary movements to disturb Federal operations in the area until Jackson decided to move against Romney. As the new year of 1862 dawned, Jackson was ready to strike.

For the first several days of January, Jackson’s men moved north and east from Winchester, advancing toward Bath, VA (now Berkeley Springs, WV), and Hancock, MD, instead of moving directly on Romney. On January 5th, Jackson’s men reached the Potomac River banks opposite of Hancock. After driving away a small Federal force on the Virginia side of the river, Jackson sent Colonel Turner Ashby across the Potomac and into Hancock under a flag of truce, requesting the surrender of Federal forces so as to keep the civilians of the town from experiencing harm. Ashby notified Union General F.W. Lander that he had two hours to evacuate the civilians of Hancock before Jackson would open fire, to which Lander replied, “Colonel Ashby, give my regards to General Jackson and tell him to bombard and be damned! If he opens his batteries on this town he will injure more of his friends than he will of the enemy, for this is a damned sesech place anyhow!”[1] The colonel of the 84th Pennsylvania recalled Lander also telling Ashby, “As for destroying property, you will have to be responsible for that; and if you cross the river you will have to run your own risk. I have some men here who are determined to fight until the last man falls.”[2] After writing out a more formal response to Jackson, Lander sent Ashby back to the Virginia side of the Potomac.

At 2:00 in the afternoon, Jackson’s guns opened fire on Hancock, MD. The artillery duel across the Potomac was mostly harmless, as General William Taliaferro noted, “It is a fact that the enemy literally snowballed us, for the missiles from their guns scattered in the hard snow and hurled the fragments upon us, almost as uncomfortable to us as the splinters from their shells.” During the back and forth, Jackson sent out raiding parties to again damage Dam No. 5 near Williamsport. The firing fell quiet at dark as a heavy snow set in, but resumed the next day, January 6th.

On the 7th, having seen his artillery barrage and attempts at crossing the river rebuffed in an easy fashion, Jackson decided to leave Hancock, and turned his army south toward his intended target of Romney. That day was extremely brutal for Jackson’s men. Freezing temperatures and blustery winds made the march difficult even for those who had proper clothes and footwear. Many of the army’s horses were not properly prepared for the march, lacking horseshoes and other equipment. As horses fell out of the line, either dead or dying, soldiers themselves were forced to pull harnesses to get wagons, caissons, and artillery pieces up mountain roads moving toward Romney. Even Jackson himself lent a hand in this harrowing undertaking. Upon reaching Unger’s Store, VA, with men and horses sick and dying from the demanding marches and brutal weather, Jackson had no choice but to rest for a few days to properly supply his army.

While Jackson rested his men and worried about the danger his absence posed for the safety of Winchester, he was unaware of developments in Romney. On January 9th, General Frederick Lander arrived in Romney with orders from McClellan telling him to fall back from the town to avoid being captured by Jackson’s force. Lander was furious with McClellan, believing he could easily best Jackson’s men given the weather and terrain: “The country wants folly, asks for folly… A demoralized enemy, starving and fearful, believing we are in force, a dark night, a snowy road, I would have stampeded the whole rearguard and burned his wagons.”[3] By January 10th, Lander was moving a 7,000 man Federal force out of Romney and towards the Potomac River and Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. On January 13th, after Jackson learned of the Federal evacuation of Romney, he resumed his march towards the town, now certain of an easy victory. Upon reaching the town, Jackson’s men found a worn out area, not fit for healthy living. Many buildings were infested with lice and disease, and camps which were formed around the town were little better. After a few more raids and marches to destroy various bridges and transportation avenues in the region, Jackson decided to pull the bulk of his force back to Winchester in mid-January, leaving three brigades under the command of William Loring as a garrison at Romney.

While not one of the grand campaigns of the war, Jackson’s Romney campaign was significant for his forces in the Valley District. Many Confederate soldiers realized that their new commander was fierce, unrelenting, and at times ruthless. Jackson’s aggressive movements had pushed away Federal resistance at several crucial strategic points which had threatened the lower Shenandoah Valley. They had also exacted a terrible price of suffering among his men and horses. The marches which his men undertook in the first weeks of January 1862 were among the most difficult that any soldiers were asked to make in the entire war. Mountain roads, snow, ice, and freezing winds were more of an enemy for Jackson’s men than were Union forces in the area.

Once Jackson had returned to Winchester, worries over the safety of the garrison left behind at Romney emanated through the ranks of both Jackson’s officers and the Confederate war department. Secretary of War Judah Benjamin ordered Jackson to bring the Confederate garrison at Romney back to Winchester out of concern for their security. Jackson found such meddling in his command unacceptable, and offered his resignation to Richmond in response. Through the help of Alexander Boteler, the Valley District representative in the Confederate Congress, Jefferson Davis and Judah Benjamin were able to cool Jackson’s anger. They sent Boteler to meet with Jackson in Winchester, so as to soothe his ruffled feathers. Jackson lamented to Boteler that Benjamin’s order undid all that his Romney Campaign had accomplished, giving the Federals a strong foothold from which to launch an attack on the Shenandoah Valley once the spring campaign had begun. Boteler reminded Jackson that his native state of Virginia still required his services, and accordingly he could not resign. Jackson agreed, and though he was still smarting over Benjamin’s orders, he continued on with his Confederate service, much to the benefit of the Confederacy. Thus, by the end of the month, Romney was once again free of Confederate troops.

[1] Peter Cozzens, Shenandoah 1862 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 80.
[2] Ibid., 81.
[3] Ibid., 91.

Monday, January 2, 2012


Now that it is 2012, I would first like to wish everyone a happy new year. As 2011 has given way to 2012, the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War has also turned a page. The upcoming year will mark the sesquicentennial of 1862, what was in many ways the turning point of the conflict on many different fronts. While 1861 saw the beginning of the war, 1862 saw the war evolve into an event which forever changed America.

At the turning of the year, things did not look good for the Union cause. For starters, international events were going against Union interests. After two Confederate diplomats were seized on the RMS Trent in November, 1861, tensions were high between the U.S. and Great Britain, leading many to fear the outbreak of hostilities between the two nations. As Lincoln sat in the Executive Mansion, he was faced with the threat of not only trying to win the war against the Confederacy to reunite the Union, but to also solve a grave international diplomatic crisis. While the Lincoln administration decided to release the two Confederate diplomats in late December, 1861, tensions were still high. Many foresaw Britain eventually recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation, a move which could possibly be seconded by France. If such European support were to materialize for the Confederacy, it would make the reunification of the country all but impossible. By the late summer months, Britain and France were on the verge of recognizing the South.

On the military front, George McClellan's Union forces in and around Washington were still idle after many months of planning. On New Year's Eve, 1861, several members of the Congressional Committee on the Conduct of the War, as well as several Cabinet Members, tried to make their case to Lincoln that McClellan should be removed and Irvin McDowell reinstated to command the Union forces around Washington. Political fighting was growing exponentially in Washington, as the newly created Committee on the Conduct of the War began expanding its presence in the Union war effort. The North had the resources and manpower to put down the rebellion, yet the task of combining manpower, resources, generals, strategy, tactics, and leadership to form a victory still remained unfinished. Many throughout the North still looked to George McClellan to accomplish this task. McClellan embodied a strategy of moderation in dealing with the South. He was strongly opposed to emancipating slaves, and thought that the war could be one with one grand Napoleonic battle, after which the nation could reunite without having to undergo a bloody, revolutionary struggle. However, another man would make a greater and remarkably different mark on the strategy of the Union armed forces in the war. In February, this man achieved his first Civil War victories at two outposts in the west: Fort Henry and Fort Donelson. His demands would embody the victory which Union armies ultimately won in 1865: "Unconditional Surrender." That man was U.S. Grant. Grant's rise and McClellan's fall were major consequences of 1862.

For the Confederacy, at the start of 1862, Joseph Johnston in the east and Albert Sydney Johnston in the west were tasked with trying to fend off upcoming Union advanced with inferior numbers. Over the next few months, each general would face the trial of battle. Ultimately, the fate of both Joe Johnston and Albert Sydney Johnton would lead to dramatic changes for the South. Joe Johnston's failure in the Peninsula Campaign led to the rise of Robert E. Lee in the Eastern Theater, and Albert Sydney Johnston's demise at Shiloh led to the instability which plagued Confederate generals in the West. At the start of 1862, Stonewall Jackson was charged with protecting the Shenandoah Valley, a crucial bread basket for the Confederacy. While Jackson had already earned his famed sobriquet of "Stonewall" at first Manassas, his 1862 exploits in the Shenandoah Valley and at Second Manassas and Antietam made him the legend we know today.

In January of 1862, for 4 million slaves in the South, the question of freedom was yet to be decided. Despite the fact that the "irrepressible conflict" had arrived, and despite the fact that many recognized that slavery was indeed at the heart of the national crisis, the issue of slavery itself remained relatively unscathed. Union generals Benjamin Butler and John C. Fremont had tried in their own way to impact the matter in 1861. Butler refused to return slaves who made their way to Union lines at Fortress Monroe in Virginia; Fremont declared martial law for Missouri in August, including emancipation for slaves, which Lincoln ordered him to amend so as to conform with existing Federal law. In early August of 1861, Congress passed the Confiscation Act, declaring that Southern property used in the rebellion was liable to be seized by Federal forces. Because slave owners viewed their slaves as property, this act therefore allowed for the Federal confiscation of Southern slaves. These various proclamations, declarations, and acts represented small and individual attempts to deal with the overriding question of slavery, yet as 1861 turned to 1862, the matter of slavery and freedom still hung in the balance for millions. The events of the upcoming year would ultimately place American slavery on the path towards extinction.

All of these issues were dramatically affected by what occurred in 1862. In many ways, 1862 was the most important of the Civil War, and perhaps, one of the most important years in American history. During that year, America saw fundamental transformations. 150 years ago, in January of 1862, the nation was on the verge of revolutionary events that would make the upcoming year an epochal moment in American history. 1862 was the year where the moderate strategy of George McClellan fell apart, and the demands of "Unconditional Surrender" Ulysses S. Grant became the rallying cry for the nation. 1862 was the year when the nations of Europe began to realize that their recognition of the Confederacy would never become a fait accompli. 1862 was the year when Abraham Lincoln would lose a son to illness, but rise as one of the greatest statesmen the world has seen. 1862 was a year when new meaning was infused into the soil at places such as Shiloh, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Finally, and most importantly, 1862 was the year which gave birth to emancipation, renewing the promise of freedom set forth in the Declaration of Independence. As Abraham Lincoln wrote that December:

"In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless."

Lincoln's words contain the true importance of 1862; it was a year which forever changed the future of freedom in America. Over the next 12 months, these will be the events to remember as we commemorate the 150th anniversary of 1862 and the American Civil War.