Civil War Talks on the Life of Jacob Cox, the Battle of Antietam, the Battle of Franklin, and the War in West Virginia

October: Book Presentation to Oberlin’s President, Talks in Alexandria, VA and Cleveland, Ohio

October will be a busy month for my CW activities.  On October 10 I will be in Oberlin, Ohio and will present a copy of my biography of Jacob Cox, Citizen-General: Jacob Dolson Cox and the Civil War Era, to Oberlin College President Ambar.  The president’s office is in the Jacob D. Cox administration building, so I though she should have a copy of the  biography of her building’s namesake.

Later that evening I will be giving a talk to the Cleveland Civil War Round Table about the Union command controversy in the Maryland Campaign of 1862.  I first spoke to this group in 2014 about the life and career of Jacob Cox.  This time I will cover the reasons why many decisions made by George McClellan led to only a tactical victory for the Union at the Battle of Antietam, at a time when an overwhelming victory was in his grasp on several occasions.

Then on October 15 I will be in Alexandria, VA at their Civil War Round Table to speak about the life of Jacob Cox.

All are welcome to these talks, so I hope to see you there.

Below are images of the Cox Administration building and my book



Antietam: The Day After and Blame-Casting

Of September 16, 17, and 18, 1862, the best opportunity for the Union to overwhelm the Army of Northern Virginia would have been on the two days on which the battle was not fought, i.e. the 16th and 18th.   McClellan blamed the fog for not attacking on the 16th, and he blamed Burnside, among others, for not attacking on the 18th.

In his memoirs, McClellan scapegoated Burnside for the failure of Antietam because of “the very pernicious effects of Burnside’s inexcusable delay in attacking the bridge and the heights in rear” after (he alleged) being ordered to attack at 8 A.M.  (McClellan’s alleged order appears nowhere in the Official Records, nor did he mention it in his official report of the battle.  In sum, it didn’t happen).  He also implied that Burnside lacked courage, stating erroneously that he had never crossed the bridge during the fighting.

Furthermore, McClellan said he had refused Burnside’s requests for reinforcements to renew the battle on September 18 because Burnside allegedly said the 9th corps was “demoralized” and his men were “badly beaten.”  Finally, McClellan noted that Burnside had told the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War that his men were in superb condition on September 18 and that McClellan had erred by not ordering an attack.  McClellan riposted snidely that he would not say the Burnside would “deliberately lie,” but that perhaps his “weak mind was turned” and he was “talked by his staff into any belief they chose.”

History has shown that McClellan’s misjudgments, whether of individuals or the size of an enemy force, were many and varied, and this was one of the most glaring.  As history also has shown, on September 18 McClellan had not only many thousands of men ready to fight another day, but also almost as many fresh troops as the entire remaining capable men in the Army of Northern Virginia.  But he did not attack, still perhaps concerned about the chimera of the countless rebel reserves.  Among the prices he and the Union would pay would be nearly three more years of war.

Below are images of McClellan, Burnside, and the Kurz and Allison painting of the Battle of Antietam




Maryland Campaign Confusion

On September 16, 1862, as a fog enveloped what would be the Antietam battlefield, Union “right wing” commander General Ambrose Burnside had a startling meeting with 9th corps commander Jacob Cox.  Burnside told him that despite his 9th corps’ great success at the September 14 Battle of South Mountain, Union commander George McClellan had, the day before, “rewarded” Burnside by cutting his authority in half.  Burnside’s other corps, the 1st, led by Joe Hooker, would now act directly under McClellan’s authority and be the right flank of the army.  The 9th corps, McClellan decided, would now be the left flank of the army.

A miffed Burnside, complaining (with good reason) that he had been undercut by either the ever-conniving Hooker or 5th corps commander Fitz-John Porter, reacted petulantly to McClellan’s ill-timed and wrong-headed decision.  Advising Cox that it would be beneath his dignity as a wing commander to lead only a corps, he devised a unique and inefficient approach to command authority.  He told Cox that when he got orders from McClellan that he would read them and hand them to Cox to carry out.  (As Cox would write to his wife a few days later, Burnside was now in effect commanding one man, him, and he was commanding the corps).

Cox, who had only met Burnside ten days before and who had been 9th corps commander for two days after Jesse Reno was killed at South Mountain, protested that he had only a small staff and only knew less than half the troops in the corps.  Burnside said he would lend him staff and that the decision was final.

Cox had no choice but to accept this peculiar and inefficient arrangement, and he was conflicted about it.  On the one hand, he wrote later, he “had no ground for complaint” because he was being given significant authority in a position of trust, and this was another feather in his cap and that of his Kanawha division.   On the other hand, “the position of second in command is always an awkward and anomalous one, and such I felt it.”

Historian Scott Hartwig has written that this and other decisions by McClellan at this phase of the campaign undid the “unity of command” of the Army of the Potomac.   Their effect on September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam have been the subject of endless debate ever since.  The next blog will add to that debate.

Below are pictures of Burnside and CoxAmbrose_Burnside2general cox



Hayes, Hays, and Haze

During the early days of the Maryland campaign, just about 156 years ago, future president Rutherford B. Hayes, a colonel in the 23rd Ohio regiment, was involved in an incident which later led to a charge that he had caused the death of General Jesse Reno.

Hayes, who had a well-deserved reputation as a tough, hard-nosed soldier, had told his men to bivouac in a Maryland field and to feel free to gather wood and hay from a farmer’s field.  As they were doing so, Reno, commander of the 9th corps (of which Hayes’s men were part), rode up and accused the men of thievery, calling them “You damned black sons of bitches.”  Hayes reacted testily to this hazing, responding that he hoped the general would be as energetic in treating his foes as he was in treating his friends.  Reno felt insulted, but Hayes assured him that he had not wanted to cause any offense.

Later, Colonel Hugh Ewing (Hayes’s commander and W.T. Sherman’s foster brother), who had a well-deserved reputation as a hothead, went to Reno himself to defend Hayes and complain about his use of profanity.  Reno said he didn’t recall using profanity, but apologized if he had.  He added that he would put the 23rd corps and the Kanawha division in the lead for the campaign to see how they would perform.   The division, led by General Jacob Cox, in fact led the way in taking Frederick, Md. and then in the victory at South Mountain, September 14, 1862.  At the latter battle, Hayes was seriously wounded and Reno was killed.

But the earlier incidents were clearly not forgotten.  In 1882 a history of the 21st Massachusetts regiment accused Hayes of pillaging and justified Reno’s anger against him.  Later, according to a letter from Cox to Hayes, a letter to the editor in the Boston “Journal” claimed that a member of the 23rd regiment had killed Reno to prevent him from court-martialing Hayes.  An indignant Hayes confirmed the realities of the situation and denied any intent to harm Reno.

Pictured are, in order, images of Hayes and Reno and the Reno monument at South Mountain fa77c1fa0ce6199fb42a381496138d3fgeneral-jesse-reno3



“Cursing Cox” and the Fall of Atlanta

As we near the 154th anniversary of the fall of Atlanta in the Civil War, I thought readers might enjoy a vignette about how a misjudgment by Confederate commander John Bell Hood and an embarrassing episode for Union General Jacob Cox helped pave the way for the Union triumph.

Having besieged Atlanta in late July/early August, Union commander William T. Sherman “was now convinced that he could expect no permanent results from cutting the enemy’s communications (and supply line) unless it were done in force.” So Sherman ordered a comprehensive flanking maneuver, entrenching the 20th AC to the north of the city and swinging the rest toward its south. Cox’s division was to be the “pivot of the movement,” and by August 27 “most of the army was between Atlanta and Sandtown.” In his diary on August 26 Cox noted, “The enemy is excited and watches to see what this means, but does not interfere.”

Sherman had not intended this effort as a subterfuge, but it became one when Hood concluded that Sherman was retreating via the Sandtown road because his earlier effort to cut the Union supply line to Chattanooga had succeeded. Hood’s Chief of Staff wrote in his journal August 26, “The prevailing impression is that the Federals are falling back across the Chattahoochee River.” Hood’s communiqués of August 25 and 26 included a report that his cavalry had captured 1000 head of cattle and that Sherman seemed to have “disappeared.”

An incident on August 27 in which Cox was allegedly involved was, by some accounts, critical to convincing Hood that Sherman had indeed retreated. According to W.J. Hardee, one of Hood’s subordinates, who related the story to Cox after the war, a female spy told him that she had been within Schofield’s lines on August 18 and had asked for food. She said she had met personally with Cox, who refused her request and even told her that he and his men had been “living on short rations for seven days, and now that your people have torn up our railroad and stolen our beef cattle, we must live a damn sight shorter.”

Cox, who neither drank, smoke, nor cursed, wrote in his memoirs that that he didn’t remember the incident, blushingly adding that “a laugh was raised at my expense as Hardee in telling the story repeated some profane camp expletives as having added emphasis to the refusal… [Cox’s commander General John] Schofield merrily rallied me on a change of habits of speech when not with my usual associates, and refused to credit my protestation.” Hardee said he had taken the woman to Hood to tell him her story, and in response “Hood exclaimed, ‘There, Hardee! It proves that it is just as I told you. Wheeler has broken Sherman’s communications; he is short of provisions and is retreating north by the Sandtown road…To this conviction he stubbornly adhered for forty-eight hours longer.”

On August 31 the flanking movement by Cox’s men allowed them to destroy the Macon and Western Railroad tracks south of Atlanta.  When Hood heard of this, he ordered the abandonment of the city the next day.  He also ordered the destruction of supplies, including armaments, which led to the first “burning of Atlanta” (at least in part).



Battle of Franklin Reminiscences

Going through “old” pictures recently, I happened on these from the 2014 commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Franklin.  They are: 1) Ed Bearss and I agreeing on the critical role of Jacob Cox in winning the day; 2) Thomas Cartwright and I at Winstead Hill, from which John Bell Hood, looking at the Union bulwark, ordered the last massive offensive onslaught of the Civil War; 3-4) two descriptive tablets of the action around the Carter House; and 5) me standing under the placard of Jacob Cox, which was displayed on the streets of Franklin during the anniversary period.  It is now displayed on the wall of my home office!  Enjoy.


Shenandoah Valley Visit

Last week we did a broad-based trip to the Shenandoah Valley, based in Staunton, the birthplace of President Woodrow Wilson.  We stayed, not surprisingly, in the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, which is next door to the Blackfriars Theater, a year-round Shakespeare playhouse.  Key stops were the Battle of Port Republic, where Jackson had his final triumph against Fremont’s forces in 1862 and the Virginia Museum of the Civil War.  The latter celebrates (venerates!?) the contributions of the VMI cadets who helped defeat Sigel in the 1864 campaign.  (Sigel helped by enhancing here his well-deserved reputation as one of the very worst Union generals).