Seventh Installment By Les Motschman
Last spring’s newsletter described the terrible Battle of The Wilderness and ended with the running battle between the two armies through Spotsylvania and Cold Harbor. There was no break from the fighting. Elements of both armies engaged each other all over northern Virginia throughout the summer and fall of 1864. Some clashes named for the nearest town or crossroads hamlet are quite well known. Many lesser engagements are hardly known at all except that officers’ reports duly note every interaction with the enemy. In his Hartland in the Civil War of fifty years ago, Howland Atwood mentions several engagements where he had determined that Hartland soldiers were present.
General Lee expected a full-scale attack on Richmond, but General Grant moved instead on Petersburg, an important Confederate supply base. Wilmington, North Carolina, was the only Confederate port still open and three railroads moved supplies from there to Petersburg and Richmond. In mid-June 1864, Petersburg was scantily fortified, but confusion among Grant’s subordinates caused a delay in taking it before Confederate troops arrived and strengthened its defenses. Grant called for a belated heavy attack but soon called it off when he realized Petersburg could not be taken by assault. Petersburg might have been taken in a day; instead the Federals laid siege to it. The siege lasted ten months. “Blundering” Bob Butler, a Massachusetts politician with no prior military experience, who was made a general at the start of the War, was blamed for not taking the town when ordered to do so. He had failed Grant and other commanders before, but President Lincoln would not dismiss him because of his influence in Massachusetts–The nation would vote for President in a few months, and Lincoln’s re-election was by no means a sure thing. The five Vermont regiments of the “Old Brigade” were at Petersburg.
Weldon Railroad – June 23, 1864
The Weldon Railroad engagement was not militarily important, but a tentative and poorly coordinated movement to destroy the railroad was very costly for Vermont troops. Operating near an area where 1700 Union soldiers had been captured the day before, the Vermont regiments battling Confederates near the railroad did not receive the order to retreat. Forty-nine Vermonters were killed, and 412 were taken prisoner. The captured were marched to the prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia, where 203 died and many of the survivors were permanently disabled. From the 11th Vermont, Edgar Leonard was mortally wounded and Elisha Spaulding was taken prisoner but paroled on Sept. 1. The Vermont 4th, 6th, and 10th, and the 1st Vermont Cavalry regiments also saw action there.
Monocacy, Maryland – July 9, 1864
After Cold Harbor, General Lee learned that a Union force was heading up the Shenandoah Valley. Though short of troops, Lee dispatched General Jubal Early and his Confederate corps to clear the valley and frighten Washington. At Monocacy, Early’s 15,000 Confederates overwhelmed the 5,000-man Union force assembled to slow the move on Washington. The nine-hour battle was important in that it delayed the Confederate advance, while a larger Union force sent by Gen. Grant made its way toward Washington. Atwood believes Hartland soldiers Charles Colby, Charles Colston and Seneca Young of the 10th Vermont were in the battle.
Fort Stevens, Maryland – July 11-12, 1864
From Monocacy, Early marched his men thirty miles toward Washington. They halted at Fort Stevens inside the district’s line on Seventh Street to assess the fort’s defenses. In fact, Washington’s defenses were poorly manned at that time. When the alarm was sounded, government clerks, home guards, invalid soldiers and casual detachments of soldiers in the city rushed to its defense. President Lincoln, looking through a glass at the White House, could see steamers in Alexandria arriving to unload veteran combat troops sent by General Grant. Soon, men in blue were filing into the fort and some formed a battle line in front.
Inexplicitly, Lincoln went to the fort himself to see how the confrontation would play out. When Early attacked, the President was standing on a parapet, a real concern for the officers accompanying him. As bullets started whizzing by, a surgeon was hit in the ankle and an officer was killed. Some accounts note an officer profanely cursed his Commander-in-Chief until Lincoln removed himself from danger.
The President had sent hundreds of thousands of men off to war. He had visited battlefields to see the resulting carnage. He had seen the wounded return to Washington in ambulances. He visited the hospitals to talk with the wounded and hold their hands. On this day, he saw first-hand many of his fine troops, under a rain of enemy fire, fall wounded or dead.
Early realized that the prize of Washington, so close, was not within his grasp. The Confederates withdrew to the Shenandoah Valley, leaving 400 wounded behind.
Les’s note: Howland Atwood ventures that helping to repel Early’s assault on the nation’s capital may have been Hartland’s most important contribution to the outcome of the war. If Early’s army hadn’t been delayed at Monocacy, it might not have been repulsed at Fort Stevens. American history from that point on would differ from what we know. One can only imagine the events that would unfold if the Confederate Army had been able to sack and burn Washington before the Union troops arrived. It would have sent a shockwave throughout a war-weary North. The war might have ended on terms more favorable to the Confederacy. Slavery might not have been abolished at that time. Who knows what a reconstituted United States would look like going forward? By my count, from the rosters of the Vermont 3rd, 5th, 6th, and 11th regiments that were at Fort Stevens, there could have been as many as twenty-four Hartland men in the battle. It would take a look at each soldier’s actual service record to determine who was fit for duty at that time, as several of the men had been wounded a few weeks earlier in the Overland Campaign.
The Army of Shenandoah
Following the battle at Fort Stevens, General Grant decided he would send an army after the Confederate force that had threatened Washington. It was time to wrest control of the Shenandoah Valley from the rebels. Earlier in the war, a large Union force had entered the Valley but had been beaten back at every turn by General Stonewall Jackson’s army. The Shenandoah Valley was Virginia’s breadbasket and it supplied food for the Army of Northern Virginia. Vermonters serving there likened it to the Champlain Valley without the lake. Grant placed General Phil Sheridan in command of the new Army of the Shenandoah. It consisted of some of the finest troops from the Army of the Potomac, including the Vermont 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 11th Regiments. The 1st Vermont Cavalry was also operating in the Valley.
Charles Town, West Virginia – August 21, 1864
Charles Town was founded by George Washington’s brother, Charles. In 1859 John Brown was tried, sentenced and hung here for treason. He prophesied “Many more lives than mine will be spent before slavery vanished.”
For a month the opposing armies maneuvered around each other. Then came the battle of Charles Town. The 6th Vermont reported being in a sharp battle, suffering more casualties than any other regiment. John Willard of the 1st Vermont Cavalry was taken prisoner.
Les’s note: A large part of Virginia beyond the Allegheny Mountains became the state of West Virginia in 1863. Residents in the mountains there and also East Tennessee did not depend on a slave economy, so they generally were not sympathetic to the Southern cause.
Winchester, Virginia – September 19, 1864
Sheridan defeated Jubal Early in an all-day battle at Winchester, also known as Opequan Creek. The Federals took 2,500 rebels prisoner. Sheridan began a “scorched earth” policy, destroying all crops and any food fit for man or beast. Barn fires everywhere illuminated the night sky. The usual five Vermont regiments were there along with the 8th and 10th. Frederick Small of the 1st Vt. Cavalry was wounded at Winchester.
Cedar Creek, Virginia – October 19, 1864
Most Vermonters likely recognize the name of Cedar Creek, even if they do not know its significance. A distinctive feature in the Vermont State House is the Cedar Creek Room on the second floor. A giant painting by Julian Scott on one wall depicts the Vermont troops’ role in saving the day at the Battle of Cedar Creek.
After the rout at Winchester, Sheridan’s Army of the Shenandoah went into camp for a well-earned rest. Sheridan went to Washington to report to his superiors. Meanwhile, the Confederate general, Early, had received some reinforcements and wanted to make one more run at Sheridan’s army. Confederate scouts
were atop a small mountain in the Valley looking down on the Union encampment, evaluating its defenses. Early sent 7,000 men quietly through the night to take up positions opposite the Union line. At first light the screaming rebels emerged from the heavy fog and overran the Union camp. Dazed Union troops ran from the oncoming mass of gray. Those who were left of the battered 8th Vermont Regiment, along with a few hundred other Union soldiers, were ordered to make a stand against the surging rebels so that the main army could escape, regroup and form a battle line. Such an order seemed like a certain death sentence as the gray wave engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat.
Gen. Sheridan could hear the battle begin twelve miles away in Winchester. His army had been pushed back four miles. Sheridan galloped back to lead his army. He urged the retreating soldiers he encountered to turn back. Because the men had the utmost respect for their commander, many did so. A thin Federal line was forming to receive an expected final massive assault. The rebels didn’t attack, and at 4 p.m. Sheridan ordered a counterattack across the ground given up earlier in the day. For a while it seemed as if the Confederates might hold their positions until nightfall. Later in the day, though, General George Custer’s cavalry, including William Wells’ 1st Vermont Cavalry, joined the battle and Cedar Creek became a rout. The great Union victory electrified the North, assuring Lincoln’s re-election a couple weeks later.
Five hundred Vermonters were killed, wounded or went missing at Cedar Creek. Of the 159 members of the 8th Vermont making the valiant stand against the rebel onslaught, 100 were shot or captured. We know of only one man from Hartland in the 8th Vermont Infantry Regiment. Thomas Geer joined the 8th on August 12, 1864, just in time to become part of the Army of the Shenandoah. He died of disease four months later. Judah Dana was wounded and Eldridge Thompson was killed at Cedar Creek. Both were with the 3rd Vt. Regiment.
Les’s note: For much of this installment, I have relied on Howland Atwood’s work of fifty years ago. To describe the Battle of Cedar Creek, I referred to Howard Coffin’s book Full Duty. Coffin has said that the 8th Vermont’s role in delaying the initial Confederate attack and the full Vermont Brigade’s participation in the successful counter attack may have been Vermont’s single greatest contribution to winning the Civil War. Coffin was instrumental in securing placement of a historical marker near the battlefield this past October for the 150th observance of the Shenandoah campaign. The marker details the story of Vermonters at Cedar Creek and says “Vermont soldiers played an important role in the Union Victory.”
The St. Albans Raid – October 19, 1864
On the same day as the Battle of Cedar Creek, the Civil War’s northernmost action took place right here in Vermont. Nineteen Confederate soldiers rode twelve miles from Canada to rob three banks in St. Albans. They shot and killed one man and tried to set the town on fire. After returning to Canada, the soldiers were arrested and held there. Most of the money was returned. The raid was one of several planned along the northern border, but the only one carried out. The objectives were to cause the Union to move troops to the border and acquire much needed money.
Men credited to Hartland who enlisted in late 1864
3rd Vt. Inf. Reg. 8th Vt. Inf. Reg. 1st Vt. Cavalry Gaius Thompson Thomas Geer Cyrus Bagley* Asa Benway 4th Vt. Inf. Reg. 9th Vt. Inf. Reg. Frederick Blaisdale John Douglas Richard Wheeler Hiram King Ferdinand Fallon* George Martin 17th Vt. Inf. Reg. Franklin Parker 5th Vt. Inf. Reg. George Hurley James Sleeper* John Blanchard John Temple* Frederick Small* Andrew Walker 6th Vt. Inf. Reg. 3rd VLAB** Zina Walker Thomas Kneen Cornelius Bagley Albert Willard Herman Orcutt Dwight Bagley Thomas Willard Hosea Young 2nd USSS*** William Petrie
* Nine-Months men who reinlisted ** VLAB – Vt. Light Artillery Battery *** U.S. Sharp Shooters (snipers)
Hartland soldiers James Emery of the 6th and Benjamin Hill of the 11th died of disease in late 1864.
The Election of 1864
Never before had the world seen anything like the election of 1864. A nation was preparing to hold free elections in the midst of a violent civil war. When people voted President, they would in effect be voting on whether to stop the war effort or to carry on to victory at any cost. Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase (from Cornish, New Hampshire) made a bid to replace Lincoln as the Republican nominee. Lincoln was renominated but did not campaign. His prosecution of the war would be the principal issue. The Democrats nominated General George McClellan, who was Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Army of the Potomac early in the war. McClellan’s tentative use of his great army against a much smaller Confederate force in the Peninsula Campaign had caused Lincoln to remove him as commander.
The military campaigns of the spring and summer of 1864 looked like failures. Lee remained unbeaten; neither Richmond nor Atlanta had been taken; the Confederates had recently made a brash move on
Washington. The Emancipation Act and the Union’s enlisting black soldiers inadvertently led to the creation of prisoner-of-war camps in both the North and the South. Tens of thousands of soldiers were housed in those dreadful prisons. Casualties in battle were higher than ever. To top it all off, Lincoln called for a new draft of 500,000 men. Lincoln did not believe he would be re-elected.
Les’s note: Some of the information above is from Bruce Catton’s 1960 book Civil War.