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

Oberlin Tributes to Jacob D. Cox

Oberlin College’s Jacob D. Cox administration building contains several significant tributes to its namesake, one of the Union’s best “citizen-generals.”  The entrance to the  building, financed by Cox’s son, J.D. Cox III, contains: 1) a brass plate commemorating Cox’s many achievements, and 2) two paintings by another of Cox’s sons, Kenyon.

Kenyon Cox is famous for his classical murals, many of which are on the walls of the Library of Congress, and  he painted these classical images as tributes to his parents.  As his biographer put it, “Cox caught his own view of his father a reserved, dignified, and important, yet thoughtful and caring.  And his mother was a personal symbol of the values he attributed to idealized women.  He saw her as a true helper to his father and a sustaining force for heer children.  But she was an independent personality.”


Oberlin College Visit

Kathryn and I visited Oberlin College on October 10, primarily to present a copy of my biography of Jacob Cox to College President Carmen Twillie Ambar, whose office is in the Jacob Cox administration building.

During a delightful chat with the President, who had been inaugurated in her position only a few days before, I noted that I first arrived in Oberlin almost 50 years before to begin the research for my doctoral dissertation.  The Oberlin College archives, then in Bosworth Hall, were the home of Jacob Cox’s papers, and I spent many months roaming through his writings and those of his many famous correspondents.

Below are pictures of our meeting, as well as of the Cox building.  Note that in the third photo, I am looking at the portrait of Charles Finney.  He was Oberlin’s second president, and a prominent evangelist and abolitionist of the early 19th century.  He was also Jacob Cox’s father-in-law.  At the bottom of that photo is a copy of the Oberlin Review noting President Ambar’s inauguration.


Whither the Rebel 100,000?

As we look back at the Battle of Antietam and debate Union tactics, one question I don’t recall being given much attention (then by McClellan, now by historians) is “whither the Rebel 100,000?”

McClellan “knew” that Lee’s forces numbered 100,000 or more for the Maryland campaign.  Nevertheless, he took the offensive on September 17 despite these alleged odds and, we now know, came within moments of overwhelming victory over Lee’s (actual about 45,000) men at several points.   Overnight on September 18-19, Lee retreated to Virginia, meaning, McClellan later told his wife, that God had, “in his mercy, a second time made me the instrument for saving the nation.”

But did McClellan also wonder on September 18, “whither the Rebel 100,000?”  That is, after September 17, did he or any of his key subordinates question his judgment about the numbers of his opponent?  Would not they have logically asked themselves why Lee, if he had such a large number of men, retreated at all, but rather have launched a massive counter-attack with his huge reserves?

According to one eyewitness, McClellan’s aide David Strother, the Union army’s leadership could have seen the answer to those questions by simply looking at the battlefield on September 18.  He wrote in his diary that day, “The enemy is…clearly in no condition to open the battle…I expressed my conviction that the enemy was beaten.”  But nothing happened, and the battle was not renewed, McClellan having been diverted, in Strother’s opinion, by “weak-kneed counselors — respectable book soldiers — who concentrated all their wits in finding something to scare at.”

Jacob Cox, reviewing McClellan’s autobiography, McClellan’s Own Story, in “The Nation” magazine, noted that McClellan made no reference there to his judgment about troop numbers in the Maryland campaign.  This fact, Cox wrote, was implicitly “an admittance of being wrong.”

As far as I know, McClellan never admitted being wrong.  To have done so in September 1862 would perhaps have undercut both his victory and his reputation.   Clearly he didn’t change his strategy or tactics — he still delayed and moved slowly until he was fired in early November.  Perhaps,  he still believed in the countless rebel reserves?



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