Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mr. Lincoln's Army: The Army of the Potomac, Part I

My interest in history was first sparked in 1961, when I was in seventh grade, and discovered the Civil War writings of Bruce Catton. Here are some of his best stories and anecdotes.

The first comes from Glory Road, second volume in a trilogy covering the Army of the Potomac. Writing in the 1950s (when women rarely appeared in history books), Catton had this:

Annie Etheridge goes to war.

On the second day of fighting at Chancellorsville (May 1863) a young woman, “gentle, respected Annie Etheridge, who wore a black riding habit with a sergeant’s chevrons and who had been part of the army since the early days of the war,” appeared on the firing line. She had gone off with the 3rd Michigan as a laundress but when the regiment headed for battle and all the other women stayed behind, she remained with the troops. She was described by soldiers as “a young and remarkably attractive girl,” “modest, quiet, and industrious.” General Phil Kearny saw her caring for the wounded one day and made sure she had a horse and a sergeant’s pay afterwards.

In the following scene we find her riding along the firing line, carrying a sack of hardtack and a dozen canteens of hot coffee for the fighting men. A shell explodes nearby, as she offers her refreshments to a group of officers. Three horses are killed. A soldier from Pennsylvania remembers, “She never flinched or betrayed the slightest emotion of fear.”

She was seen later, inspiring the gunners of a battery locked in a long-range duel with enemy guns. They had been hit hard and were thinking of abandoning position. “That’s right, boys,” Etheridge shouted encouragement, “now you’ve got good range, keep it up and you’ll soon silence those guns.”

The gunners gave a cheer, sent her to the rear, and kept firing. We were more inspired by “that brave little sergeant in petticoats” one man recalled than if all the officers of the army had urged them on.

After the battle Gen. David B. Birney’s division was paraded. Birney had devised a decoration called the Kearny Medal. (By this time, Kearny had been killed.) It was a bronze Maltese cross awarded to enlisted men for valor. Birney pinned the medal on the blouse of Miss Etheridge. (Glory Road; p. 198; 215)


Catton pointed out that the “wolf whistle” was unknown to the men of the Army of the Potomac. On the march north to Gettysburg, the soldiers met friendly greeting at every town and at most homes they passed along the road. Often, the young ladies came out to watch them march past. Catton explains: “The army had its own method of greeting these girls…an abrupt, significant clearing of the throat, or cough, which burst out spontaneously whenever a line of march went by a nice-looking young woman, so that at such a time, as one veteran said, ‘the men seemed terribly and suddenly afflicted with some bronchial affection.’”

It might be fun to have some of the boys in class demonstrate. Perhaps pick one of the other boys to play the role of the “nice-looking young woman.”

The following notes come from Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1953), the first volume in the trilogy.

As commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George B. McClellan always faced one insurmountable obstacle: George B. McClellan. As early as August 1861 he complains, “I am here in a terrible place; the enemy have from three to four times my force; the President, the old general [Winfield Scott], cannot or will not see the true state of affairs.” (66)

Not once will he be outnumbered in this war—and at Antietam he will have a 2-1 advantage over Lee.

A soldier in the 75th New York described the condition of his regiment in the fall of 1861: “Tonight not 200 men are in camp. Capt. Catlin, Capt. Hulbert, Lt. Cooper and one or two other officers are under arrest. A hundred men are drunk, a hundred more are at houses of ill fame, and the balance are everywhere…Col. Alford is very drunk all the time now.” (62)

The band of the 15th Massachusetts didn’t appreciate being assigned to ambulance duty, which meant they would have to serve as stretcher bearers during any fighting. When they refused their colonel clapped them in the stockade and fed them bread and water till they relented. (71)

McClellan did an excellent job organizing his forces and promised the war would be “short, sharp and decisive.” Pressed by Lincoln to move against the enemy, he was soon complaining to his wife, “I can’t tell you how disgusted I am becoming with these wretched politicians.” “I am becoming daily more disgusted with this administration—perfectly sick of it. If I could with honor resign I would quit the whole concern tomorrow…” “There are some of the greatest geese in the cabinet I have ever seen…” “It is sickening in the extreme, and makes me fell heavy at heart, when I see the weakness and unfitness of the poor beings who control the destinies of this great country.”

Typically, he said that if defeat did come, “the fault will not be mine…” In my opinion: McClellan was really good at making excuses, almost always a fatal flaw in any kind of endeavor. (88-90)


When the book opens, McClellan has just had his army taken away and General John Pope is in charge. Many officers have doubts about the new commander. “I don’t care for John Pope one pinch of owl dung,” says Gen. Samuel D. Sturgis. (7)

“We can buy our gloves together.”

Gen. Kearny, who lost his left arm early in the war, tried to console Gen. Oliver O. Howard after he lost his right. Howard replied, “There is one thing we can do, General: we can buy our gloves together.”

Kearny invented a red diamond patch for the men of his division to wear on their caps. Later the Army of the Potomac adopted patches for all corps, forerunner of patches troops wear today. (31)

Shoulder patch: First Air Cavalry, Vietnam War.

Pope is badly defeated at Second Bull Run (Aug. 29-30, 1862). The fight opens with Yankee forces attacking Stonewall Jackson and his men. The Rebels are protected by “an unfinished railroad embankment…a position as good as a fort,” Catton explains.

Jackson is outnumbered and pulls back part of his line, which Pope interprets as a sign of an impending retreat. He telegraphs Washington to say he has won a great victory! Other officers warn that Rebel reinforcements are fast approaching. Catton explains: “When Pope made up his mind it stayed made up, and there was no room in it this morning for anything but the conviction that the enemy was in flight.” He renews his attacks in an attempt to shatter Jackson’s line. Jackson’s men run out of ammunition at one point and throw heavy stones down the embankment at the Yanks. A Union officer, sword drawn, rides up the embankment alone, trying to encourage his men to follow. Even Rebel defenders shout, “Don’t kill him!” Too late: a volley erupts and when the smoke clears the brave man and his mount are dead.

Catton adds: “Jackson’s men behind their railway embankment were in shape to hold their ground for the rest of the summer.” (191)

Pope puts many of his men into marching formation, ready to pursue Jackson when he retreats—just in time for Confederate forces to crash down on their rear. The blue army is routed. (My students rarely knew what a “rout” was even though they had heard the word in stories about sports.)

There was one moment of humor at Second Bull Run. A wounded Union officer was being carried to the rear on a stretcher. A Rebel shell sailed overhead and exploded a few yards away. The wounded man leaped to the ground and ran for the rear on undamaged legs. (44)

Catton says that by the end of this debacle the men in the ranks had come to “the sickening realization that men get killed uselessly because their generals are stupid, so that desperate encounters where the last drop of courage has been given serve the country not at all and make a patriot look like a fool.” (45-48)

“Seeing the elephant.”

Soldiers who saw combat referred to it as “seeing the elephant.” The phrase comes from a time when going to the circus was cause for amazement and seeing an elephant the most amazing of all. (This comes from readings other than Catton.)

A New Jersey man admitted that going under fire the first time was a terrible experience. Some of the men in his company fell to the ground as if shot and picked themselves up later, quite sheepishly, he said. One boy went up to the firing line, as if in a trance, moaning over and over, “O Lord, dear good Lord!” (127)


Gen. John Gibbon, of the famous “Black Hat Brigade,” later nicknamed the “Iron Brigade,” led one of the three-pronged attacks designed to trap Sitting Bull and the Sioux at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

On rainy days, when soldiers of the 6th Wisconsin, in Gibbon’s brigade, were hunkered down in their tents, some private with a strong voice would call out, “When our army marched down to [Second] Bull Run, what did the big bullfrog say?”

Hundreds of men would croak, “Big thing!” Big thing!” (Catton says that phrase was slang for any notable event or achievement.)

The first soldier would call again, “And when our army came back from Bull Run, what did the little frogs say?”

The chorus would respond, “Run, Yank! Run, Yank!”

The first soldier again: “What does the Bully Sixth say?”

The answer showed the men’s spirits were unbroken: “Hit ‘em again! Hit ‘em again!” (18)

The men of the 6th also took “perverse” pride in their regimental band, which one officer described as “that execrable band.” The drum major, William Whaley, however, was adept with a baton.

Gibbon’s brigade clashed unexpectedly with Confederate forces one day, during the Peninsular Campaign. The two battle lines “volleyed away at the murderous range of less than one hundred yards.” After 90 minutes, with dusk coming on, the fight ended with both sides where they were when it began. The 2nd Wisconsin, which had never been in combat before, took 500 men into the fight and had 298 dead, wounded or missing. The 6th lost “only” 74; but the regimental historian later explained that until the end of the war the Iron Brigade was always ready for action, but after this “we were never again eager” for a fight.

The historian of the 2nd Wisconsin would note that by war’s end nine of ten men in combat assignments had been shot at least once.


For all his faults, McClellan was popular with his men. After Pope was beaten at Second Bull Run, he took command again. One soldier described the euphoria at the news he was back in charge. His unit is marching by starlight when they hear:

Shout upon shout went into the stillness of the night; and as it was taken up along the road and repeated by regiment, brigade, division and corps, we could hear the roar dying away in the distance. The effect of this man’s presence upon the Army of the Potomac—in sunshine or rain, in darkness or daylight, in victory or defeat—was electrical, and too wonderful to make it worth while attempting to give a reason for it. (51)

Having started with the story of Pope, Catton turns to McClellan’s first time in charge, when he takes the Army of the Potomac south in the spring of 1862. He had spent eight months preparing to advance. Now with McClellan finally approaching, Gen. Joseph Johnston, in command of Rebel forces, withdraws from his position at Manassas Junction, burning everything his men can’t carry.

Yankee troops discover that his lines were defended by “Quaker guns,” trimmed logs painted black. The fact McClellan had not come close enough to have a look or test Confederate strength until then did not enhance his reputation. For months, the watchword of his picket’s had been, “All quiet on the Potomac.” This had become an insult, symbolizing inaction.

“No one but McClellan would have hesitated to attack.”

McClellan moves his troops by water, lands on the Yorktown peninsula and allows his army to be bottled up. Gen. John B. Magruder, commanding Confederate forces at Yorktown, fooled the Yankees by marching troops through a clearing in the woods where they can be seen, back the other way along a hidden road, and across the clearing, again and again. McClellan’s scouts warned that enemy forces were present in great strength.

Writing to Lee, Johnston noted, “no one but McClellan would have hesitated to attack.” (109)

Catton describes one famous soldier:

[George Armstrong] Custer was familiarly known as “Cinnamon” because of the cinnamon-flavored hair oil he used so liberally; wore long glistening curls and a show-off uniform with a tight hussar jacket and black trousers trimmed with gold lace, and looked, as another staff member remarked, “like a circus rider gone mad.” (115)

In Glory Road, the second book in the trilogy, he has this to say: Custer was “a flamboyant hell-for-leather horseman…who possessed the great basic virtue of liking to fight.” (243)

Believing in what he came to call “Custer’s Luck,” the young cavalry general who liked to fight proved reckless in the extreme—and lucky—on several occasions during the Civil War. He was just as reckless fighting Native Americans at Washita in 1868 and at the Little Big Horn in 1876.

Just not as lucky.

McClellan was adept at making men feel like real soldiers. The 4th Michigan had a sharp little fight one day, losing eight killed or wounded. Catton describes the scene as their commander stops to offer encouragement. “‘How do you feel, boys?’ There was a quick chorus of ‘We feel bully, General!’ Still casual, McClellan asked them: ‘Do you think anything can stop you from going to Richmond?’ And the regiment yelled, ‘No!’” (116)

Lincoln tried to prod him to move more forcefully and break the Confederate defenses. McClellan wrote to his wife, “I was very much tempted to reply that he had better come and do it himself.”

We used to have good discussions in class about what qualities made for good leadership. You could apply much of it to leadership on the basketball court or soccer field, which interested students, or even within families. I would argue that teachers must have leadership skills, as well.

Administrators, too!

McClellan’s biggest problem was his use of Allan Pinkerton’s spies to supply intelligence. Pinkerton had contacts with African Americans in Richmond and they helped move Union spies in and out. Pinkerton would eventually warn that Lee had 180,000 men to wage the Seven Days’ Battles. “Almost everything he did and failed to do in this campaign,” Catton says of McClellan, “can be explained by that one fact.” (118-123)

At most, in the spring of 1862 the Confederates had 80,000 men to stop the Army of the Potomac.


Soldiers learn on the job, like any workers, except that their learning involves bloodshed. Catton writes:

Officers who had been bright with gold-embroidered shoulder straps, red sashes, and plumed hats [at the start of the war] became more somber-looking; many of them bought privates’ uniforms and sewed their insignia of rank on the shoulders, having learned that in a fight or on the picket-lines the enemy believed in picking off officers first. Regiments that had worn fancy leggings or gaiters began to discard them, the men finding that it was more comfortable to roll the trouser leg snug at the ankle and haul the gray regulation sock up over it. Paper collars had disappeared, and the men in the Zouave regiments, which wore gay red pants and yellow sashes, topped by Turkish-style fezzes, began to wonder if these uniforms were not both unduly conspicuous on the firing line and excessively hard to keep neat. (124)

Death in combat made at least some sense. More died from disease during the Civil War than bullets or cannon fire. Many Northern soldiers were felled by malaria when they came to the South. No one knew how typhoid spread and thousands died. The worst affliction may have been camp diarrhea, which hit almost everyone and might become chronic. A Michigan soldier remembered “the terrible, nauseating stench that envelopes a military camp.” In one month, without a single shot fired, seven men died and eight were medically discharged in the 125th Ohio.

Army sanitation was often lax in the extreme. One day the surgeon of the 57th New York complained to his commanding officer that a few careless men were infested with lice. “The whole army is lousy!” his colonel exploded. “I am lousy, you are lousy, General McClellan is lousy!” Students might be interested in the provenance of the word, “lousy.” (144)

The soldiers learned to travel light. The 40th New York used ten wagons to carry baggage in the early days; by fall of 1862 the men hauled what they needed on their backs. Most experienced soldiers got rid of the knapsack. A man spread out half a pup tent (soldiers paired up when they camped), placed blanket on top, arranged spare clothing, small items of gear on top; rolled tightly, tied with straps from discarded the knapsack, tied two ends close and looped the roll over a shoulder. A Massachusetts soldier joked that one man would carry a towel, the other a cake of soap.

The bayonet was very rarely used in battle. The men did find the round end, with the point jabbed in the ground, made a good candle holder for reading or writing letters.

How to make “shadow soup.”

Unlike Southern troops, the Army of the Potomac normally had ample supplies. Still, one soldier grumbled about the “shadow soup” served to sick and wounded in the hospital. Catton provides the recipe: “Put a large kettle of water on to boil, then hang a chicken so that its shadow falls in the water, and boil the shadow for half an hour; add salt and pepper and serve.” (175)

(I am reminded of Norman Mailer’s assessment of army cooking during World War II: “When it’s smokin’ it’s cookin’; when it’s burnin’ it’s done.”)

A veteran described a typical noonday halt while on the march. Each man built a small fire, had a small tin can with a twine handle, filled it with water, and poured in coffee from a little bag.

At the same time a bit of bacon or pork was broiling on a stick, and in a few minutes the warm meal was cooked and dispatched. Then, washing his knife by stabbing it in the ground, and eating up his plate, which was a hardtack biscuit, the contented soldier lit his laurel-root pipe, took a few puffs, lay down on his knapsack for a pillow, and dozed until the sharp command, “Fall in!” put an end to his nap. (178)

Catton gives a detailed description of hardtack: three inches on a side, nearly half an inch thick. It was good enough when fresh, nine or ten making a day’s ration. Hardtack could be soaked in water, drained, fried in pork fat, a repast called “skillygalee.” If moldy it was thrown away. If it had weevils it was issued to the troops anyway. Heating it by the fire would drive the weevils out. Salt pork was sometimes eaten raw on hardtack when troops were on the move.  

The men of the Army of the Potomac had plenty of coffee. It was issued as whole beans, which they pounded on rocks with stones or rifle butts.

Not much thought was given by commanders to organized meals. If beef was issued when troops were in the field, the common soldier usually wrapped a piece on a stick and broiled it over a fire.

In settled camps, during winter, most companies did elevate one or two men to the status of company cook. “A company cook is a peculiar being,” one veteran recalled. “He generally knows less about cooking than any man in the company. Not being able to learn the drill, and too dirty to appear on inspection, he is sent to the cook house to get him out of the ranks.” (180)

Escaped slaves who had been plantation cooks sometimes joined up with the troops and were warmly welcomed.


As far as the Peninsular Campaign goes, Johnston finally decided to gamble and attack McClellan before the Union commander could close in around Richmond and commence siege operations. During the battle of Seven Pines (or: Fair Oaks) Johnston took a bullet in the shoulder and a shell fragment knocked him from his horse. It was probably the worst shot fired by any Yankee during the war.

Robert E. Lee took command.

Lee ordered Stonewall Jackson down from the Shenandoah Valley and launched a series of savage attacks. McClellan was frozen by his belief that Lee had an “overwhelming” numerical advantage—and that his repeated attacks proved he must have more men. “Pinkerton’s fantastic reports,” Catton says, “believed like the writ of true faith, were worth a couple of army corps to the Confederacy that week.” McClellan lost his nerve and his troops were ordered to load up on all the salt pork, hardtack and coffee they could carry and set fire to their supply dumps.

The men sensed “a big skedaddle” was coming.

McClellan did care deeply about his men. Writing his wife, he admitted, “Every poor fellow that is killed or wounded haunts me.”

On the night of the Battle of Gaines’s Mills, he called in his top commanders. All corps commanders agreed that retreat would be wise. Kearny and Gen. Joseph Hooker, both division commanders, insisted Rebel forces in their front were weak and they could smash a path to Richmond if given permission to turn and attack. Permission was refused. Kearny denounced McClellan to his staff later, “in language so strong that all who heard it expected he would be placed under arrest until a general court martial could be held, or at least he would be relieved of his command.”

McClellan at home.

A rattled, angry Gen. McClellan (as usual: blaming others) wrote to Secretary of War Stanton after the Gaines’s Mill fight:

I feel too earnestly tonight. I have seen too many dead and wounded comrades to feel otherwise than that the government has not sustained this army. If you do not do so now the game is lost. If I save this army now, I tell you plainly that I own no thanks to you or to any other persons in Washington. You have done your best to sacrifice this army.

A War Department clerk deleted the last two sentences before passing the message on. (142)

“If any army can save this country it will be the Army of the Potomac.”

One evening, a cavalry officer rides up to McClellan’s headquarters. He reports there are empty roads in his front—and if the army would halt its retreat Union troops could storm into Richmond unopposed. McClellan replies, “If any army can save this country it will be the Army of the Potomac, and it must be saved for that purpose.”

(He will display exactly the same kind of hesitancy at the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.)

Lee’s attack at Malvern Hill, the final act of the Peninsular Campaign, turns out to be a slaughter—and proof that even the greatest generals in history make terrible blunders. It resulted in the slaughter of thousands of gray soldiers, and what Catton calls a “field day for the [Union] gunners.”

Rain fell that night. Mist blanketed the battlefield the next morning. Colonel William Averell described the scene:

[We could see nothing in the gray light and mist] but out of it came a pulsating, endless wave of pitiful sound—the agonized crying and moaning of thousands of wounded boys who had been lying on the ground, unattended, all night long. By and by the sun came up and the mist thinned, and presently he could see the battleground, one of the most horrible sights of the war. Five thousand men lay there, covering the ground like ragged carpet that lived and made incoherent sounds and, here and there moved dreadfully. “A third of them were dead or dying,” he wrote, “but enough of them were alive and moving to give the field a singular crawling effect.” (140)


After Pope got pummeled at Second Bull Run, President Lincoln gave McClellan a second chance. Lee was headed north to Maryland and the Army of the Potomac followed. Soldiers in the 3rd Wisconsin remembered being fed “cakes, pies, fruits, milk, dainty biscuits and loaves” passed out by citizens in Frederick. A soldier in the 9th New York found the streets “filled with women dressed in their best, walking bareheaded, singing, and testifying in every way the general joy.”

“It seemed like Paradise,” said a third veteran, “this Maryland, and many were the blessed damosels we saw therein.”

If there has ever been an army disinterested in the opposite sex, historians have not recorded the fact.

A few random notes: The Irish Brigade included the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York, Irish to a man, emerald green regimental flags, with gold embroidery, an Irish harp, shamrock and sunburst. Also added: 29th Massachusetts, mostly Irish. (167)

The “Napoleon” fired a 4.5 inch round shot, could hit a mile away, not accurate past ½ mile, best for firing case shot or canister, which contained 200-300 round bullets. Catton called the field piece “a sawed-off shotgun of enormous size.” The maximum range for canister was 250 yards but infantry could pick off gunners at that range too. (190)

A MiniĆ© ball (“minnies” to the men) could kill at half a mile. Effective range was 200-250 yards.

Similar to canister; don't have a picture of that.

After Pope’s defeat, Catton notes:

The Prime Minister of Great Britain, having compared notes with the Foreign Secretary, was getting ready to propose to the British Cabinet that England take the lead in inducing a concert of powers to step in and bring the Civil War to an end—which, of course, could only mean independence for the Confederacy….The two men were waiting now to see how the invasion of Maryland turned out before taking final action.

McClellan helped restore optimism and the armies marched north, toward their clash at Antietam. “Homesick boys with muskets on their shoulders would finally have to say which way American history henceforth would go,” says Catton. (209)


Most history teachers know about Special Orders No. 191. Catton provides good detail.
Corporal Barton W. Mitchell and First Sgt. John McKnight Bloss were lying in grass in a fence corner beside the road. They noticed an envelope. Mitchell rolled over and opened it, finding three cigars inside, wrapped in Special Orders No. 191. Catton says that nowhere in history does anyone say “what happened to the cigars.”

The orders prove: “Lee’s army was at this moment completely scattered, and McClellan, his own army united, was closer to the scattered pieces than those pieces were to each other.” If he struck hard Lee’s army would have no chance. “There was just one catch in it. McClellan would have to move fast.”

McClellan was well aware that this was his great opportunity: “Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobbie Lee, I will be willing to go home….Tomorrow we pitch into his center,” he told his corps commanders, “and if you people will only do two good days’ marching I will put Lee in a position he will find it hard to get out of.” (215-217)

Unfortunately, McClellan did not move decisively enough. A relatively small Rebel force on South Mountain blocked his path the better part of a day. Storming up South Mountain that day, Lt. Col. Rutherford B. Hayes of the 23rd Ohio, was wounded. Sgt. William McKinley was not hurt.

McClellan lets a chance to crush Lee slip.

McClellan was in view of Sharpsburg on September 16, when Lee’s army was scrambling to reunite. He was excited, having pushed the enemy off South Mountain, writing his wife, “If I can believe one-tenth of what is reported, God has seldom granted an army a greater victory than this.”

He wrote to Lincoln in the same vein, telling him, “General Lee admits they are badly whipped.” (251)

All day on the 16th McClellan studied the situation in his front. “He was going to have everything ready before he opened the fight, and nothing was going to be lost through overhasty action. Or gained either,” Catton explains. At that moment, Lee had about 25,000 men present.

The famous Dunker Church—a landmark in the battle to come—was home to a sect which believed steeples were a vanity and killing a sin.

There was a brisk little fight around what would later become famous as the “East Wood.” But both armies went to sleep that night, with a tension in the air, and men reported the mysterious sound of muffled tramping of men unseen. General Joseph K. Mansfield spread a blanket in a fence corner and lay down to sleep. A lot of the boys in the 10th Maine were awake and talking around nearby fires. Mansfield rose, “went over to shush them,” but he was nice about it, and not like a major general. At midnight the camps died down and the soldiers slept.

“And whatever it may be that nerves men to die for a flag or a phrase or a man or an inexpressible dream was drowsing with them,” Catton writes, “ready to wake with the dawn.” (261)

It might work to ask students: What is it that makes people willing to die for an idea or a country, etc.?

The devil’s playthings littered the camps.

It rained in the night. At dawn in the mist and half-light pickets saw movement and opened fire, the armies lying close. By six a.m. the air shook with the thunder of heavy artillery fire. Many camps were littered with decks of cards (card playing being considered sinful and no sense carrying the devil’s playthings into a fight). Hooker’s artillery began blasting what would forever after be known as “The Cornfield.”

Thick clouds of smoke made it impossible for men to know what was going on other than in a small area round them:

The black powder used in those days left heavy masses of smoke which stayed on the ground or hung at waist level in long tattered sheets until the wind blew it away, and this smoke deposited a black, greasy film on sweaty skins, so that men who had been fighting hard looked grotesque, as if they had been ineptly made up for a minstrel show.

The intense fire shredded cornstalks, splintered rifles, punctured canteens and tore haversacks and human beings to shreds. (269-271)

Those who fought at Antietam remembered bullets as thick as hail in a storm. The men advanced, bending their heads, as if facing a driving rain. A Union officer was heard shouting, “This fire is murderous!”

Gen. John B. Hood’s gray troops had just sat down to cook their first real meal in days when they were ordered forward. A blue attack had broken the main Rebel line and the Yankees would almost surely win the battle unless stopped. Hood’s men formed in time, met the Federal attack, and delivered a volley which was “like a scythe running through our line,” said one stunned Yankee survivor. Union forces broke and ran, Hood’s men following and jeering.

General Gibbon noticed that several Union gun crews had let the elevation screws on their field pieces run down. So they were firing over the heads of Hood’s men. He leaped from his horse, adjusted one screw himself, and the battery was soon firing double-canister at a range of fifty feet. Catton says that the charging Confederate line melted away under this fire.

As always, there were those who could not stand the strain. Catton describes the fields and woods behind the lines being filled with:

The skulkers and the unabashed cowards who always ran in every battle…the men who could stand something but not everything, the men who had stood fast in all previous fights but found this one too terrible to be borne; the men who helped wounded comrades to the rear and then either honestly got lost…or found that they could not quite make themselves go back into it. (272-275)    

Gen. Mansfield rode down his battle line, shouting, “That’s right, boys, cheer—we’re going to whip them today!” In the smoke and confusion he rode forward for a look at enemy positions. “Those are Rebels, General!” a soldier shouted warning. Confederate troops opened fire. Mansfield’s horse was hit. The general took a bullet in the stomach, a mortal wound. Gen. Hooker took a bullet through his boot—which filled with blood—and had to ride to the rear. The men of the 27th Indiana shot up all their ammunition, 100 rounds per man, and had to retrieve cartridges from the dead and wounded. Corporal Mitchell, who had found the cigars and Lee’s orders, was badly wounded.

Fresh Union attacks went forward. The 19th Massachusetts had been a “fancy-Dan” outfit, electing not only its officers, but its men, at the start of the war. Their division advanced across “The Cornfield,” stepping over dead and wounded. Shells that passed over their first line hit the second or third. A survivor later grumbled, “We were as easy to hit as the town of Sharpsburg.” Union and Confederate infantry exchanged fire at a distance of fifteen paces. Captain Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (later Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) was wounded for the second time during the war. He would be wounded six times before the war ended. (277-289)

(Catton is not my source for that number; and since I can’t remember the source, I’m not sure I’m correct.)

The bees win a battle.

There was heavy fighting around the Roulette farm. Rebel artillery blasted a row of beehives. The 132nd Pennsylvania was a new regiment and had been facing bullets well enough, but the bees drove them back.

The focal point of Union attacks, now led by Gen. Edwin V. Sumner’s corps, shifted to the “Sunken Road.” Catton explains:

The men who defended it were almost wholly protected; the men who tried to take it would have to advance in the open, exposed to a crippling fire. It was as nasty a strong point as the army ever ran up against: the famous sunken road, know forever after (for sufficient reason) as Bloody Lane.

The Yankee attackers stopped at the top of a low rise, the road slightly below. The men in gray could hear shouted commands.

Down they came, four ranks deep.

Rebel artillery concentrated on the blue infantry, knowing if the Sunken Road was taken there was nothing to stop the Union army from capturing Sharpsburg and cutting off Lee’s retreat. Yankee artillery concentrated on the enemy guns. Rebel crews ever after remembered this day as “artillery hell.” The Irish Brigade drove the Confederates back from a position to the right of the lane. Half of the men in the 63rd New York were killed or wounded. Gen. Thomas Meagher’s horse took a bullet in full gallop and both horse and rider went down. Meagher was knocked cold. Two blue regiments finally got into position where they could enfilade the road. The battle, says Catton, “had come to a moment of supreme crisis.” Gen. D.H. Hill grabbed a musket and led the last of his gray reserves in a counterattack.

Meagher and the Irish Brigade.

A Federal battery withdraws to a safer spot. A civilian gentleman in a two-horse carriage appears out of nowhere, alights, and begins handing out ham and biscuits. Then he takes several wounded men to an aid station.

At this point, Lee’s line was a “frayed thread.” “Many years later Longstreet confessed that at that moment ten thousand fresh Federals could have come through and taken Lee’s army and all it possessed.” (292-298)

McClellan blows his chance to win a great victory and settles for a tie.

On this terrible day, McClellan had 87,000 men present for battle.

Lee had 41,000.

Sumner, stunned by the carnage he had already witnessed, refused division commanders permission to press their attacks. A staff officer arrived from McClellan’s HQ to urge Sumner to advance if he could. “Go back, young man,” he told the messenger, “and tell General McClellan I have no command! Tell him my command, Banks’ command and Hooker’s command are all cut up and demoralized. Tell him General Franklin has the only organized command on this part of the field!” (299)

McClellan had it in his power at that moment to shatter Lee’s army, and very possibly win the war. Failing to see it, he upheld Sumner’s decision not to continue the attack.


Meanwhile, a planned Union advance on their left never got going. Antietam Creek could have been crossed in most places without men getting their belt buckles wet. Yet it “was treated that day as if it were quite impassible, a veritable Rhine River, not to be crossed except dry-shod on a bridge.” McClellan sent several messages urging his left wing to attack. Yankee troops scheduled to lead the way across the bridge used up their ammunition banging away at Rebel defenders on a line of hills across the stream. Another unit had to go first. Two hours were wasted shuffling regiments into position. All morning, Lee kept stripping troops from this part of the line to plug holes elsewhere. When the Federals got across and got up on the plateau behind the bridge, around 3 p.m., only 2,500 Rebels barred the path to Sharpsburg—which meant Union troops were once again in perfect position to cut Lee’s escape route. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, leading Union forces on this wing, had one division restocking ammunition, one division in reserve, and a third looking for a ford which wasn’t even needed. (301)

The last desperate hour of the Confederate Army visibly at hand.

Catton describes the situation: “Slowly the Rebel line of defense faded away—brigades up front all cracked, Sharpsburg filled with demoralized stragglers looking for shelter, the last desperate hour of the Confederate Army visibly at hand.”

Gen. A.P. Hill arrived just in time to knock Burnside’s advance back on its heels, having marched so hard to reach the scene that half his men fell out on the way. Burnside reported that he could hold his ground, but needed reinforcements.

A Union brigade lay down halfway up a hill, under heavy fire. A veteran recalled “the most vehement, terrible swearing I have ever heard.” “The mental strain was so great,” said another, “I think, in the life of Goethe on a similar occasion—the whole landscape for an instant turned slightly red.” (309)

Equal losses—increasing peril for the Confederate army.

By this time each side had lost 10,000 men. I always found it interesting to ask students what that meant.

My classes tended to see it as a tie. It was necessary to prod them before someone realized: Lee was in worse shape than ever. Now he had 31,000 men left to face 77,000 troops under McClellan. When I asked questions like this I sometimes ignored students if they seemed to know the answer. I wanted to get more kids involved in any discussion and a variety of answers never hurt.

Several officers urged McClellan to send Gen. Fitz-John Porter’s corps, held in reserve, to renew the attack. Porter was hesitant. “Remember, General—I command the last reserve of the last army of the Republic,” he told McClellan.

The fighting ended for the day. (314-315)


Darkness brought an end to the carnage. Reinforcements joined McClellan all day on the 18th, while he and his corps commanders planned fresh attacks. That night, however, his men could hear Lee’s troops pulling out of the lines and heading for the Potomac River to escape.

Catton notes that burial duties were handed over to regiments that had fallen out of the good graces of brigade or division commanders. The body of one soldier, draped over the fence at Bloody Lane, was found to have been struck by 57 bullets. Capt. George Freeman Noyes saw an officer carrying a large piece of salt pork, just issued to feed his men. He cried out that he was the only survivor of his unit and had no idea what to do with the food.

McClellan himself was thrilled by his success, writing his wife, “You should see my soldiers now! You never saw anything like their enthusiasm. It surpassed anything you ever imagined.” “Those in whose judgment I rely tell me that I fought the battle splendidly and that it was a masterpiece of art.” (320-321)

He and they were wrong.

My classes used to have a great discussion on the topic: That human beings are most often defeated by their attitudes—like McClellan—imagining obstacles in their paths to be insurmountable. I had been in the Marines myself and had some amusing stories about “attitude adjustments” administered at my expense at Parris Island. I had also seen a guy named Tim Traylor running the Cincinnati Heart Mini-Marathon with steel arm braces/crutches (he had cerebral palsy). We used an article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, about Bruce Jennings, who bicycled across the USA with one leg. The question I liked to pose was, “How could he do it? How could Jennings make it when most people with two legs assumed they couldn’t? 

Later I pedaled across the country myself.

Lincoln, of course, decided the time was right after the Battle of Antietam to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. The next month the Emperor of France proposed that his country, Russia, and England step in and bring about an armistice. The British cabinet rejected the idea. Now that Lincoln had acted, no one wanted to be known as an “apologist for slavery.” (322)

In November 1862, Lincoln fired McClellan again.

Around the campfires one night, soldiers of the 17th Michigan discussed recent events. They agreed that the president should retire all the generals “and select men from the ranks who will serve without pay, lead the army against Lee, strike him hard, and follow him until he fails to come to time.” (331)

The bitter fruit of all battles.

If you are interested I have a number of Civil War readings for students for sale at Middle School History and Tips for Teachers, on TpT.

Glory Road: The Army of the Potomac, Part II

The following examples come from Glory Road, the second volume in Bruce Catton’s marvelous history of the Army of the Potomac.

By the fall of 1862 the State of Pennsylvania had sent 150,000 men to war. In the spring of 1863, the town of Berkeley was rocked by an anti-draft protest and the militia had to be summoned, with four of five “insurgents” (Catton’s word) killed.

In mid-August, 1862, the Iron Brigade had mustered 2,400 men in four regiments; now it was down to a thousand men. On October 9, the 24th Michigan was added to the brigade, a regiment that would be one of the last all-volunteer units to enlist. Heading east, the men were treated to a banquet at Pittsburgh. Every soldier was presented a bouquet by a pretty girl, and remembered one, “a portion of the regiment was in a fair way of being captured.” (15)

“About as incompetent a general as Abraham Lincoln ever commissioned.”

Once again, the army had a new commander. “In some ways,” Catton says, Gen. Burnside

was about as incompetent a general as Abraham Lincoln ever commissioned, and he comes down in history looking stiff and stuffy with frock coat and incredible whiskers, a man who moved from disaster to disaster with an uncomprehending and wholly unimaginative dignity.

He had once reached the altar with a Kentucky belle, only to have her return a “no,” when asked the penultimate question.

A historian could write in 1906, that it was the Army of Potomac’s misfortune to be cursed “by a line of brave and patriotic officers whom some good fairy ought to have knocked on the head.”

Even Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. despaired:

I have pretty much made up my mind that the South have achieved their independence & I am almost ready to hope spring will see an end….The army is tired with its hard and its terrible experience & still more with its mismanagement & I think before long the majority will say that we are vainly working to effect what never happens—the subjugation (for that it is) of a great civilized nation. We shan’t do it—at least this army can’t. (27-33)

 A plan to make a sudden strike across the Rappahannock River was aborted when bridge-building equipment failed to arrive. After sitting for three weeks, stymied by the river, with cold winter rains coming down and his army sinking in mud, Burnside decided to “surprise” Lee, throw across bridges (now that materials were at hand), and cross directly in front of Fredericksburg.

“A simple exercise in the killing of Union soldiers.”

Catton sums up the battle succinctly, saying it would become nothing more than “a simple exercise in the killing of Union soldiers.”

A teacher might do well to stress that line to students. What a waste of human life. And the soldiers had to know it.

The Irish Brigade at the Battle of Fredericksburg.

Before the battle really got going a Rebel shell passed through a Union quartermaster’s tent just as he was preparing to pay his regiment. Greenbacks “went whirling and dancing up about the wrecked tent like a green blizzard, and the ensuing scramble by stragglers and orderlies was something the army long remembered.”

The Rebel yell, “that hellish yell,” said one Michigan soldier, could be heard by advancing blue attackers. A Federal surgeon said later, “I have never, since I was born, heard so fearful a noise as that Rebel yell.” He compared it to “a regular wildcat screech.” “There is nothing like it this side of the infernal region,” another Yankee said, “and the peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it, and if you say you did not feel it, and heard the yell, you have never been there.”

Stonewall Jackson, by comparison, called this spine-chilling yell “the sweetest music I ever heard.” (41-42; 45-46)

Marye’s Height, held by strong Confederate forces, rose above a sloping plain half a mile wide. A canal ran across the front, with only two small bridges where it could be easily crossed. At the foot of the ridge was a sunken road with a four-foot stone wall. Behind this, Lee’s men waited:

An infantry attack in that war rarely implied an uninterrupted advance with the bayonet. It usually meant getting the attackers to close quarter so that they could break the defensive line with their own fire. This little rise was where the Federals must stand to deliver the fire that would break the Rebel line—unless, indeed, it should develop that this particular Rebel line could not be broken by any weight of fire whatsoever, in which case this was where the boys would stand while they found out.

It was a hopeless attack. “Up in front,” Catton writes, “in that last deadly zone between fifty and one hundred yards from the stone wall, one firing line would be crumbling and going to pieces under the fearful Confederate fire…” Fresh brigades would be coming on in orderly lines, to crumble in turn. The 5th New Hampshire had its commander shot down, and then three more men who took over, all in ten minutes. Colonel Nelson Miles asked to lead two regiments in a bayonet charge—took a bullet through the throat—and went to the rear with blood dripping between his fingers. When smoke lifted at one point, a Yankee general watching the attack exclaimed, “Oh, great God! See how our men, our poor fellows, are falling!”  Three Union soldiers were seen sheltering behind a dead horse. Others lay behind the corpses of dead comrades. The defenders behind their stone wall were relatively safe. One Yank admitted that, “for every Johnny [Reb] hit a ton of lead was expended.”

Burnside kept putting in fresh troops and Lee’s defenders kept shooting them down. Two untried brigades were ordered forward. As they advanced, veteran troops hugging the ground tugged at their legs and told them not to go forward. It was no use. The advancing line became disordered. A sheet of flame in the dusk struck the new brigades and half the men went down. It was almost dark when the last blue wave advanced. Eyewitnesses saw the whole field lit up, as if by lightning, when the Rebels blasted the attack to a halt. Burnside was reportedly distraught. He proposed to lead his old IX Corps in an attack himself. General Darius Couch said he “could see that he wished his body was also lying in front of Marye’s Heights.”

A correspondent for the Cincinnati Commercial would write: “It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor, or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.” (55-60; 62; 64)


Burnside was relieved of command and both the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia settled into their winter camps. Troops guarding opposite banks of the Rappahannock became friendly. The 17th Mississippi sent a little two-foot boat across to Yankee pickets. “We send you some tobacco by our packet. Send us some coffee in return. Also a deck of cards, if you have them, and we will send you more tobacco. Send us any late papers if you have them.” The Rebels also sent over a book, Questions on the Gospels, which one of the Federals carried the rest of the war.

The soldiers sang a great deal in this war. A favorite song: “When This Cruel War is Over,” by Charles Carroll Sawyer:

Dearest Love, do you remember,
   When we last did meet,
How you told me that you loved me,
   Kneeling at my feet?
Oh! How proud you stood before me,
   In your suit of blue,
When you vow'd to me and country,
   Ever to be true.


Weeping, sad and lonely,
   Hopes and fears how vain!
Yet praying, when this cruel war is over,
   Praying that we meet again.

When the summer breeze is sighing,
   Mournfully along,
Or when autumn leaves are falling,
   Sadly breathes the song.
Oft in dreams I see thee lying on the battle plain,
   Lonely, wounded, even dying,
Calling but in vain.


If amid the din of battle,
   Nobly you should fall,
Far away from those who love you,
   None to hear you call—
Who would whisper words of comfort,
   Who would soothe your pain?
Ah! The many cruel fancies,
   Ever in my brain.


But our Country called you, Darling,
   Angels cheer your way;
While our nation’s sons are fighting,
   We can only pray.
Nobly strike for God and Liberty,
   Let all nations see
How we loved the starry banner,
   Emblem of the free.


(Full song found online.)

Tenting Tonight on the Old Camp Ground

We’re tenting tonight on the old camp ground,
Give us a song to cheer
Our weary hearts, a song of home
And friends we love so dear.


Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,
Tenting on the old camp ground.

We’ve been tenting tonight on the old camp ground,
Thinking of days gone by,
Of the loved ones at home that gave us the hand,
And the tear that said, “Good-bye!”


The lone wife kneels and prays with a sigh
That God his watch will keep
O’er the dear one away and the little dears nigh,
In the trundle bed fast asleep.


We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground.
The fires are flickering low.
Still are the sleepers that lie around,
As the sentinels come and go.


Alas for those comrades of days gone by
Whose forms are missed tonight.
Alas for the young and true who lie
Where the battle flag braved the fight.


No more on march or field of strife
Shall they lie so tired and worn,
Nor rouse again to hope and life
When the sound of drums beat at morn.


We are tired of war on the old camp ground,
Many are dead and gone,
Of the brave and true who’ve left their homes,
Others been wounded long.


We’ve been fighting today on the old camp ground,
Many are lying near;
Some are dead, and some are dying,
Many are in tears.


Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right,
To see the dawn of peace.
Dying tonight, dying tonight,
Dying on the old camp ground.

During the long winter the bands of the two opposing armies would play songs. One evening, Union and Confederate bands traded tunes. “At last,” says Catton, “the massed bands played ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ and 150,000 fighting men tried to sing it and choked up and just sat there, silent, staring off into the darkness; and at last the music died away and the bandsmen put up their instruments and both armies went to bed.” (174)

I think it might be fun to have students write about what soldiers were thinking that night.

Standing guard: always a thankless task.

My classes always loved doing skits—and it was easy to get four volunteers to take the roles of soldiers, two from each side, and talk about “their” experiences during the war and take questions.

We sometimes used four girls in the role of widows (who had letters their husbands had sent them) with good results. You always had at least one young man willing to play a widow. And you could use at least one girl in the role of a female who masqueraded as a man.

(Recent historical works have uncovered dozens of cases of females who served in the ranks.)

Catton notes that the troops built cabins with tent roofing and mud-brick chimneys. One soldier remembered that a favorite trick at night was to put a flat board over the top of some nearby cabin chimney and then escape before the angry men inside were smoked out. (71-72)

Certainly, the men of the Army of the Potomac were gloomy. Major Rufus Dawes considered this “the Valley Forge of the war.”

“I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us.”

William Thompson Lusk of the 79th New York could confide in a letter, “Mother, do not wonder that my loyalty is growing weak….I am sick and tired of disaster and the fools that bring disaster upon us.”  (81)

Gen. Carl Schurz wrote to the president to warn that he was hearing officers and men say “all these fatigues and hardships are for nothing, and that they might as well go home.”

Two hundred men were deserting every day. There were some who allowed themselves to be captured, signed a parole, and went home. By February 1863 the Army of the Potomac listed 85,123 desertions. That included many of the wounded, who were sent to their home states to recover and often decided not to return. The army had little authority to fetch them since regiments were under state control. So many soldiers were granted discharge on the basis of “rheumatism” by friendly doctors back home that the army had to prohibit all further claims. (102-106)

A veteran from New Jersey was blunt: “In a company of one hundred enlisted men, only about one third of the number prove themselves physically able and possessing sufficient courage to endure the hardships and face the dangers of active campaigning; the rest, soon after going into the field, drift back to the hospitals and finally out of the service.” (110)

Copper heads from pennies.

The decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation was unpopular even in many parts of the North. Catton notes that the state constitution of Indiana (adopted 1851) forbid free Negroes from coming into the state and “provided penalties for white folk who dared to hire them.” The anti-war “Copperheads” organized, drilled, appointed their own major generals and some even went so far as to call for Lincoln’s assassination. In Indiana they claimed 125,000 members. Copperheads had secret signs of recognition, even a code word, “Nu-oh-lac,” or Calhoun, spelled backwards.

The 128th Illinois, recruited from the southern part of the state, lost almost all its men to desertion. The soldiers declared “they would lie in the woods until the moss grew on their backs rather than help free the slaves.” (113)

Clement Laird Vallandingham, the Copperhead leader, posed this question to an audience in a speech: “Ought this war to continue? I answer no, not a day, not an hour. What then? Shall we separate? Again I answer no, no, no! Stop the fighting. Make an armistice. Accept at once friendly foreign mediation.” (227-228)

Gen. Burnside, sent to command a district behind the lines where he would get fewer good men killed, issued Order Number 38. All who declared sympathy for the enemy would be arrested and might be sent to the South. Vallandingham challenged his order at a rally in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. The rally featured 34 pretty girls, representing the 34 states, riding a horse-drawn float. The men wore copper heads cut from pennies and mounted to pins and clasps, from which the movement gained its name. Burnside arrested Vallandingham and he was sent to prison. The Chicago Times, which had been expressing similar anti-war sentiments, was shut down. Lincoln decided it was better to send Vallandingham across enemy lines and suppression of the Times was revoked. (232)

“Getting shot and having your name spelled wrong in the newspapers.”

On St. Patrick’s Day in 1863 the men of two regiments organized a party, with barrels of beer, a greased pole with a fifteen day furlough pinned to the top, and horse races. Sadly, the pole was too well greased and no man could climb it. An accident during a race killed two horses and a rider—an ironic way for any soldier to meet an end. (126)

A man in the ranks noted that military glory boiled down to nothing more than “getting shot and having your name spelled wrong in the newspapers.” By this time states were paying bounties for enlistments, Vermont as high as $1,500. One veteran grumbled that voters were all for bounties! Each man who took a bounty meant the voter was less likely to have to serve. (128)

Some men were steadfast in their convictions. Mayor Henry Lee Higginson, a cavalry officer from Boston, put it this way: “We’ll beat these men, fighting for slavery and for wickedness, out of house and home, beat them to death, this summer, too.…We are right and are trying hard; we have at last real soldiers, not recruits, in the field, and we shall reap our harvest….My whole religion (that is, my whole belief and hope in everything, in man, in woman, in music, in good, in the beautiful, in the real truth) rests on the questions now really before us.” (133)

March 1863: the North institutes a draft; Governor Horatio Seymour of New York makes it clear he is vehemently opposed. (Catton does not mention: but anti-draft riots in New York City in July left more than a hundred dead.) Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown opposed the decision of Confederate lawmakers to start a draft in almost exactly the same way as Gov. Seymour.

Ask students if they know how the draft works. In February 2019 there was a decision in a lower federal court that women should have to register when they hit age 18, just like young men.

Names for the draft were picked out of a large wheel.

By the spring of 1863 the Army of the Potomac had another commander, “Fighting Joe” Hooker, so nicknamed for his personal courage and hard-hitting approach in combat. While his courage was not in doubt his ability to lead was. “We all feel that General Hooker will be like the poor man that won the elephant at the raffle,” one supporter wrote. “After he got the animal he did not know what to do with him. So with fighting Joseph. He is now in command of a mighty large elephant, and it will remain to be seen if he knows what to do with him.” (140)

Not if he got to Richmond, but when.

He got off to an auspicious start. Realizing that supply officers were sometimes selling fresh vegetables bound for the troops to civilians and pocketing the cash, Hooker had them arrested. According to one veteran, he improved the hospitals, let incompetent officers resign their commissions, and returned men “who were playing sick” to active duty. New orders were published: “the men should be required to wear their hair short, to bathe twice a week, and put on clean underclothing at least once a week.” Furloughs were issued in a more generous fashion. “How he did understand the road to the soldier’s heart!” said one soldier of Hooker. “How he made out of defeated, discouraged men a cheerful, plucky, and defiant army, ready to follow him anywhere!”

Hooker was filled with confidence himself, telling Lincoln the question wasn’t if he would get to Richmond, but when. (143-145)

At the same time, many questioned Hooker’s character. According to one officer, his headquarters was “a place no gentleman cared to go and no lady could go.” The general was known to keep women of easy virtue about. Soldiers sat about campfires and commented on “Hooker’s ladies.”

Soon they reduced that to “hookers.” (150-152)

“If the enemy does not run, God help them!”

Hooker was supremely confident—much too sure of himself. “If the enemy does not run, God help them!” he exclaimed. He said he hoped God would have mercy on the Rebels, for he would have none.

The army, one soldier said, felt it finally had “a leader who knew what to do and was going to do it.”

At first it appeared it did. The Army of the Potomac managed to cross the Rappahannock in a surprise move, and position itself at Chancellorsville. Hooker was in Lee’s rear, in position to cut railroads to Richmond and sever the Confederate lines of supply. (156; 163; 167)

Lee turned quickly to face the threat and launched his attack. The fighting was intense and Hooker decided to pull back slightly, telling one officer, “It’s all right, Couch, I’ve got Lee just where I want him.”

“The Rebel army is now the legitimate property of the Army of the Potomac,” Hooker exclaimed.

The “most nightmarish” mistake of the war.

Lee decided on a brilliant gamble and sent Stonewall Jackson with half his army, swinging wide to the left to get around Hooker’s right flank. The XI Corps, holding that position, was filled with soldiers of German descent. There were reports of Confederate troops moving to Lee’s left. Hooker sent Gen. Oliver O. Howard, commanding the XI Corps, a note to consider the possibility he might be flanked. The failure of Union officers to see disaster coming, Catton calls the “most nightmarish” mistake of the war.

Gen. Charles Devens was new to the XI Corps—and Catton paints him as a villain in the debacle. Colonel Lee of the 55th Ohio had numerous reports from his pickets that Rebel forces were about to attack. He relayed the news. “Devens pooh-poohed at him, but Lee stuck to his story, insisting that big trouble was coming down the wind, whereupon Devens loftily remarked that Western colonels were more scared than hurt.” (Ohio was considered “Western” in those days.)

Colonel Richardson of the 25th Ohio was next, saying scouts had seen massed gray infantry half a mile from the right and rear of the XI Corps. Again, Devens blew off the report. A third warning from Lt. Colonel Friend of the 75th Ohio finally moved Devens to send him to Howard. Corps HQ begged Lt. Col. Friend not to spread panic—but did little to prepare. Colonel Leopold von Gisla, previously of the Prussian army, was hearing similar warnings from his pickets. The enemy was massing. “For God’s sake, make disposition to receive him!” warned a junior officer. Von Gilsa went to Howard to sound warning. Howard insisted the woods in front of XI Corps were too thick for an enemy battle line to pass. Captain Hubert Dilger rode out for a look—ran into a Rebel battle line a mile away—and rushed off to give warning—first to Hooker, then Howard.

“All the Rebels in the world.”

By this time it was late in the day. An XI Corps band played “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” A private in the 75th Ohio wandered off to a spring in the wood and dipped his tin cup for a drink. An officer lay idly in some grass, the reins of his horse wrapped in one hand, as the animal cropped the leaves. Suddenly, dozens of deer raced out of the trees to the west and fled east. Howard’s men cheered this unusual scene—but their cheers were drowned out by a thunderous blast of Rebel fire.

Von Gilsa’s skirmish line of two German regiments looked up to see all of the Rebels in the world shouldering their way through the tangle, firing their rifles and yelling like fiends, their line extending far beyond vision to right and left. The Germans got off a few hasty shots and then the flood rolled over them.

The 75th Ohio turned to face the threat and held a few minutes before being overrun, with 150 killed or wounded. Various units held briefly, only to be destroyed. Howard’s corps was shattered and with that, for all intents and purposes, the Army of the Potomac was defeated again.

At some point, exploding shells set the woods on fire. Men wounded too badly to crawl to safety died in the flames. One eyewitness described those hours as “a scene like a picture of hell.” (192)

During the battle, Hooker was leaning against a wooden pillar of the Chancellorsville mansion. A Rebel cannonball struck the pillar, knocking him to the ground and causing—probably—a concussion. Hooker was given brandy and revived, rose from a blanket where he had been lying, and saw another shell rip the spot he had vacated. Catton says Hooker planned his campaign “like a master;” but when the battle came “the army to all intents and purposes had had no commander at all.” (210)

Lincoln received a telegram announcing defeat the stunning defeat. “My God! What will the country say?” he wondered. (211)

Hooker is confused: Cartoon by Bill Nye, 1893.

“A song that had suddenly taken on enormous meaning.”

The war itself was taking a new shape. Slavery was now clearly doomed if the North prevailed. A young white soldier, commissioned to officer a new “Negro regiment” that spring, heard his men singing:

Yes, we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again,
Shouting the battle cry of freedom.

He said he had never before heard such singing.

These colored men were not just repeating the empty words of a good marching tune [Catton writes]. They were putting everything they had into a song that had suddenly taken on enormous meaning, and words like “the flag” and “freedom” had become revolutionary, the keys to a great future. It might be, indeed, that this idea of freedom was something that had no limits whatever.

(Writing in the 1950s, Catton still used “Negro” and “colored.” If you go back to 1910, of course, it was a battle to get writers to capitalize “negro.” An entire race was undeserving of grammatical equality with Caucasians.)

Wendell Philips described the new reality of this new war: “Never until we welcome the Negro, the foreigner, all races as equals, and melted together in a common nationality, hurl them all at despotism, will the North deserve triumph or earn it at the hands of a just God.” (219-220)

The North, of course, had huge economic advantages. The factory system was taking deep root there. The North had thirty-eight arms factories, capable of producing 5,000 rifles per day. The South could make 300—but shortages of workers cut that to 100. Hundreds of new engines and thousands of railroad cars were built. A new machine to stich soles and uppers revolutionized the boot-and-shoe industry. The sewing machine made it possible to supply huge orders for uniforms. Packing plants in Chicago made fortunes for owners, not for workers who were treated poorly in that era. Pennsylvania was experiencing the first oil boom the nation had ever seen. Only 84,000 gallons had been sold in 1859. By 1862 sales had reached 128 million gallons. Kerosene lamps began replacing candles and whale oil lamps. An additional 800,000 immigrants arrived during the war, almost all settling in the North. The South hoped England would step in to end the war, needing cotton to keep English textile mills running. Catton says the English learned they needed Northern wheat more.

Fifteen new colleges and universities were founded in the North, including Vassar (1861), only the second college for women in the United States. Almost all institutions of higher learning barred females.

Meanwhile, the Homestead Act was passed (1862) and 2,500,000 acres were given away during the war.

Young John D. Rockefeller already had a sharp eye out for any dollar in reach. He was willing to part with $300 to hire a substitute to keep out of the draft. Teddy Roosevelt’s father did the same.

These examples do not come from Catton. Another historian estimates the $300 in 1863 would be equal to something like $10,000 today.


June 1863 finds Lee’s army headed north once more, with Hooker and his men following close on the Rebels’ heels. One Union regiment passes the old Bull Run battlefield. There they see “bleached skulls and ribs and shinbones lying in the meadows amid heaps of rotted clothing.”

Grim humor: soldiers never change.

Finally they passed a too-shallow grave by the roadside. From it there extended a dead hand, withered to parchment, reaching bleakly toward the sky as if in some despairing, unanswered supplication. A New Jersey soldier saw it, reflected upon it, and was moved to mirth. “Look boys!” he called, pointing to the lifeless hand. “See the soldier putting out his hand for back pay!” (251)

With blue units spread out for miles along the highways, Jeb Stuart’s Rebel cavalry scouting Hooker’s movements are forced to make a wide circuit to get round the Army of the Potomac and back to Lee. As Catton puts it, Stuart “rode his cavalry right out of the campaign.”

Without cavalry to act as the eyes of his army, Lee is blind to the movements of Hooker and his troops.

Once more, Hooker seems to be handling his troops well. But he asks permission to pull a garrison out of Harpers Ferry—which has already been captured once—and he is refused. With that his frustrations boil over and he offers to resign. That offer is accepted. Gen. George Gordon Meade takes on June 28, just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg. (257)

A soldier in the 3rd Michigan remembered the cheering people, and the girls and the good roads, as they marched hard, to the North, noting “the roads around here are beautiful and macadamized and we enjoy marching over them very much. Every man in the ranks feels jubilant.” (260-261)

A teacher would need to point out to students that few roads were paved in that era.

Where are your umbrellas?

The Army of the Potomac was about to fight its fifth major battle in less than a year: Second Bull Run (August 1862), Antietam (September 1862), Fredericksburg (December 1862), Chancellorsville (May 1863) and Gettysburg (July 1863). They were also under their fifth commander during that time. By this point the three New York regiments in the Irish Brigade had been whittled down by combat and consolidated into two companies each. One rainy day, these veterans passed a new regiment. The “rookies” were wearing white, dress uniform gloves. Scornfully, the experienced men told them to get out of the rain and asked where their umbrellas were.

A loyal citizen described Rebel troops he saw heading for Gettysburg:

Their dress was a wretched mixture of all cuts and colors. There was not the slightest attempt at uniformity in this respect. Every man seemed to have put on whatever he could get hold of, without regard to shape or color….Their shoes, as a general thing, were poor; some of the men were entirely barefooted. Their equipments were light as compared with those of our men. They consisted of a thin woolen blanket, coiled up and slung from the shoulder in the form of a sash, a haversack swung from the opposite shoulder, and a cartridge box. The whole cannot weight more than twelve or fourteen pounds.

He asked the men about tents. Did they have any? One Reb replied, “I just wouldn’t tote one.” (265)

The moon was bright on the last day in June. Many regiments kept going long after the sun was down. Colonel Strong Vincent led his troops through one moonlight little town. Citizens came out to watch. He ordered his flags unfurled and a mood came over him. “There could be worse fates than to die fighting in Pennsylvania,” he said to an aide, “with that flag waving overhead.” (267)

He would be killed on July 2.

Catton describes the start of a battle that neither army expected. On the morning of July 1, Rebel forces were spotted by a Yankee patrol near Willoughby Run, northwest of town. A corporal and three men of the 9th New York Cavalry saw them coming. The corporal sent his men back to spread the word, rode across a little bridge, fired a few shots and was fired upon. Gen. John Buford had several thousand blue cavalry nearby and decided to block the Rebel path. A six gun battery wheeled into position and fired a shot at a group of mounted gray officers three quarters of a mile away. For the next two hours, Buford’s men held A.P. Hill’s gray infantry at bay, both armies unsure what fresh troops might be arriving next, or from what direction. Buford sent riders dashing away to notify Gen. John Reynolds, in charge of I Corps. South of town Reynolds’ men could hear heavy firing and quickened their pace. (271)

At first, Hill’s men thought they might have run into Pennsylvania militia called out to meet an emergency. Soon, veteran units of the Army of the Potomac began arriving to block their way. Catton writes, “The Iron Brigade could hear the Southerners telling each other: ‘Here are those damned black-hat fellers again….‘Tain’t no militia—that’s the Army of the Potomac!”

The battle grew quickly in size and intensity. Confederate regiments took position in an unfinished railroad cut in an effort to find shelter. Yankee troops got into a position to enfilade their position and hundreds had to surrender. An officer in blue accepted the surrender of a colonel in gray who handed over his sword, and then six other officers, and ended up with an armful of swords.

Dust clouds to the north of town gave hint that more Rebels forces would soon be arriving. Lee’s battle line kept extending to the north and then east, as more and more Confederate units reached the scene. Reynolds was shot dead. General Howard, commanding the luckless XI Corps, placed his HQ atop Cemetery Ridge. A soldier remembered batteries galloping into position, knocking over tombstones in haste to take up positions. Howard sent off messengers, begging Union commanders to hurry to Gettysburg.

With more and more Confederates coming into line against them and hitting the XI Corps from the flank, Howard’s men began to break. The 75th New York had to change front to face an enemy attack. In fifteen minutes they lost 111 men and had to run. General Francis Barlow was badly wounded and left behind. The 16th Maine was ordered to hold a low ridge. Their colonel protested that he had only 200 men and couldn’t possibly do it. The order stood. He and his men got hit from front and rear. The color-bearer told survivors to tear off pieces of the flag and then run for it and hope to make Cemetery Ridge. Howard’s entire line crumbled and in the chaos thousands of soldiers in blue were taken prisoner. It was Chancellorsville all over—and there were many Confederates who would believe they might have won the war for good that day, if only the attack had been pressed later in the day. (277)

“Each man felt that upon his own arm hung the fate of the day and the nation.”

West of town, Union troops were fighting desperately. Col. Roy Stone said his Pennsylvania men fought “as if each man felt that upon his own arm hung the fate of the day and the nation.” The intensity of the fight can be summed up in casualty figures. Robinson’s division, in the I Corps, lost 1,600 men out of 2,500, including Gen. Gabriel R. Paul, shot through both eyes. The Iron Brigade was hammered from three directions. The brigade commander was knocked out when his horse was killed and fell on him. Eight men carried the colors for the 19th Indiana on July 1. All eight were killed or wounded. Pvt. Patrick Maloney, who had proudly captured a Confederate general earlier in the fight, was killed. The 24th Michigan, a regiment new to the brigade, took 496 men into the fight and lost 399, a casualty rate of 80%.


My personal experiences altered the way I approached the Civil War. Growing up, I watched too many John Wayne movies and thought going into battle would be cool. I enlisted in the Marines in 1968 and volunteered twice in the summer of 1969 to go to Vietnam. It was just dumb luck that I was never sent. As a teacher, I felt it was important to make clear to students that. I used to mention (delicately) that you can be hit by bullets or shrapnel in all parts of the body. One story I read about the Iraq War mentioned a soldier who took a piece of shrapnel through the frontal lobe of his brain—the battlefield equivalent of a lobotomy. Another story highlighted the 1,300 U.S. soldiers hit in the genital areas in Iraq or Afghanistan. Improved medical care means we have veterans who have survived triple amputations.

By comparison, I did my time as a clerk in a Marine supply unit and never got closer to Vietnam than Camp Pendleton, California. I used to tell students I defended our country with a staple gun.

Our school did have phenomenal success bringing in veterans to talk and we tried to ensure they described some of their worst experiences.

Veterans from five wars visit Loveland Middle School in 2005.
We had continued the program now for sixteen years.


On the morning of July 2, church bells rang in a convent at Emmitsburg, eight miles from Gettysburg. A soldier in the II Corps, still marching hard to reach the scene of battle, felt a twinge of homesickness, remembering how bells at home chimed before mass. Soon the II Corps arrived, took position along Cemetery Ridge and placed its 120 ambulances on the back side of the ridge.

The fighting was renewed. Gen. Alexander Hays led his troops forward. At one point an orderly on a white horse was detailed to ride with him for a closer look at Confederate positions. Hays asked, “Will you follow me, sir?” The man smiled but did not reply. Hays asked with a touch of anger again: Would he follow? The soldier, an Irishman, saluted: “General, if ye’s are killed and go to hell it will not be long before I am tapping on the window.” (287)

As teachers probably know, Gen. Daniel Sickles’ nearly lost the battle when he advanced his III Corps too far out in front of the main Union line and got hit from two directions. A Massachusetts battery, in its first battle, lost all 60 horses, half its men, and had every officer killed or wounded. The survivors tried to remove their six guns by hand but could only save two. A soldier watching the men struggle wrote later, “It is a mystery to me that they were not all hit by the enemy’s fire, as they were surrounded and fired upon from almost every direction.” (296)

Gen. William Barksdale was leading a Rebel attack when an entire Federal company was ordered to concentrate fire on him. He was hit five times and killed. Colonel George Ward of the 15th Massachusetts had lost a leg early in the war. Now he was walking along behind his battle line, with a cane and a peg leg. He too was killed.

Two desperate charges save the day—and perhaps the nation.

Twice on July 2, desperation charges saved the day—and perhaps the nation. Atop Little Round Top, Col. Joshua Chamberlain (who had been “a college professor and a minister of the gospel before the war”) was in command of the 20th Maine. Given orders to hold his position at all costs he realized his men were running out of ammunition. With no other choice, he ordered them to make a bayonet charge, a great rarity in the Civil War. This unexpected downhill attack sent Rebel troops coming up the slope flying. Chamberlain had trouble stopping his men, who called out that they were “on the road to Richmond.” The 20th Maine captured 400 prisoners and control of Little Round Top remained in Northern hands. (293)

My students enjoyed a 20-minute segment from the movie Gettysburg, showing the fight of the 20th Maine.

It’s PG-rated bloodshed—and a little too much like the old John Wayne movies—still, I liked it myself.

Our students also loved the original version of Glory, the story of African American soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts. That film is R-rated for violence and we ran into parents who complained, even after we received permission slips from all the students who watched it. The school version is less impactful but good. Plus Denzel Washington wins an Academy Award.

The second charge that saved the day came after Sickles’ line collapsed and the main Union position on Cemetery Ridge was threatened. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock said later that he realized he had to buy five minutes to plug a yawning gap in the line and bought those five minutes with the only forces he had at hand.

The 1st Minnesota was ordered to counterattack. Outnumbered roughly 6 to 1, they slammed into an advancing Rebel brigade, losing all but 47 men of 262 men. That meant a regiment that had already seen stiff losses in other battles suffered a casualty rate of 82% at Gettysburg. (300)

I think I’d ask students what those last 47 men talked about that evening around their campfires.

Charge of the 1st Minnesota.

The Rebels were finally driven back on July 2, although fighting continued on Culp’s Hill long after dark. Union troops reaching the field said that “the high screech of the Rebel yell coming out of the darkness ahead was ‘more devilish than anything which could come from human throats.’” A soldier remembered passing the home of an “old crone.” “Never mind, boys—they’re nothing but men,” she reminded the soldiers. Her words seemed to have a calming effect.

That night, units on both sides were still marching hard in hopes of joining the fight on July 3. There were regiments that marched 30 miles in 24-hours with only the briefest stops for rest.

One local citizen appeared at Meade’s headquarters early on July 3. He began complaining because troops were using his home as a hospital, burying the dead in his garden and piling amputated arms and legs, hands and feet on his lawn. As you might expect, Meade kicked him out.

Lee, of course, ordered Gen. George Pickett to take 15,000 men and break the Union line on July 3. A huge artillery duel preceded his attack. On Cemetery Ridge, General Henry Hunt, in charge of the Army of Potomac’s artillery, eventually rode down the line telling gunners to save ammunition for when the expected attack came. Smoke hung two feet off the ground, so that only the legs of the men working the guns could be seen. A horse pulling an ambulance went flying past, with three legs, one having been taken off by a cannonball. Meade stood in the door of a cottage where he had his HQ; a shell smashed the doorjamb, missing him by inches.

Catton relates the story of Gen. Hancock and Gen. Lewis Armistead, old friends now fighting on opposite sides at Gettysburg. In the spring of 1861, as officers in the U.S. Army chose sides, Hancock had given a party at the army post in Los Angeles. Mrs. Albert Sidney Johnston (whose husband would be killed at Shiloh the following year) played “Kathleen Mavoureen” on the piano. Armistead, who was resigning to join the Confederacy, “put his hands on Hancock’s shoulders, tears streaming down his cheeks, and said, ‘Hancock, good-by—you can never know what this has cost me.’” (315)

Hancock was badly wounded at Gettysburg when a bullet passed through the horn of his saddle, driving bits of leather and a small nail deep into his thigh. A messenger came to him after Pickett’s attack was smashed and handed over a watch, spurs and other personal items and a message from Gen. Armistead: “Tell Hancock I have done him and my country a great injustice which I shall never cease to regret.” (321)

Armistead had been shot down during the attack but lived long enough to ask that his effects be passed along.

The terrible fire Pickett and his men faced is well known. Catton says a shell might rip through their ranks, “sometimes striking down ten men before it burst.” When the Rebel attack came close enough a mighty blast of artillery fire tore Pickett’s regiments to shreds. At that moment “a moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the roar of battle.” These were human beings—and they were being slaughtered. Long after the war, Pickett refused to forgive Lee for ordering his men to make what he always felt was a hopeless attack. Told that the charge had been turned back, Meade exclaimed, “Thank God!” (318)

The ground in front of Cemetery Ridge was now littered with the dead and dying. Recent writers have noted that at least one of the gray dead turned out to be a female. Some less badly wounded men could be seen waving white handkerchiefs. A wounded Yankee would write home after the battle. Again, this comes from a more recent history of the battle. His spelling and punctuation were poor, but the story he related was unusual. “I must tel you,” he scribbled, “we have got a female secesh here. she was wounded at Gettysburg but out doctors soon found her out. I have not seen her but the say she is very good looking the poor girl as lost a leg.”

Meade might have attacked Lee in turn on July 4; but both armies were almost too battered to continue. A soldier described the scene that day: “As far as the eye could reach on both sides of the Cashtown road you see blue-coated boys, swollen up to look as giants, quite black in the face, but nearly all on their backs, looking into the clear blue with open eyes, with their clothes torn apart.” (324)

For three days, another writer has said, at Gettysburg the future of the United States “hung by a spider’s thread.”

The Army of the Potomac paid a bloody price but with their first real victory they made sure that thread was never broken.


If you are interested I have a number of Civil War readings for students for sale at Middle School History and Tips for Teachers, on TpT.


One of these days, I’ll get around to taking notes on the third volume in Catton’s series: A Stillness at Appomattox. Hope these notes are of some use to you, if you read this far. I’m retired and still putter around with my old materials.

If I was still teaching, I'd use this as a writing prompt.
What did this soldier think after he recovered from being knocked out by the impact of this bullet?