Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Could McDowell Have Moved Faster ?

     It is interesting to read soldiers' letters to get a feel for what was happening as history unfolded.  It is especially interesting if the writer has a keen eye for observation and detail.

Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign;
Late May, 1862

          One of the criticisms of the Union forces trying to cut off Stonewall Jackson during his 1862 Valley Campaign, was that they moved too slow.  John B. Noyes, a private in Co. B, 13th Mass. Vols, [Hartsuff’s Brigade] participated in the march and he agrees McDowell moved too slowly. 

     Here is the setup:
     General McClellan’s 100,000 troops are closing in around Richmond, the Confederate Capital. General McDowell is close by at Falmouth, with 50,000 troops about to join them.  In an attempt to draw off some of the pressure around Richmond, General Lee sends General Richard Ewell’s troops to the Shenandoah Valley to join forces with Stonewall Jackson and create a disturbance there.  Lee hoped the disturbance would draw away some of McDowell's forces to the valley.  The ploy worked.

     General Nathaniel Banks, greatly reduced army was holding the Valley for the Union.  His forces were outnumbered by the Confederates two to one.  When Jackson and Ewell surprised a small outpost at Front Royal, Va. on May 22, Banks’ small army was spread thin.  Jacksons’ force swept down on the small garrison at Front Royal and captured 700 of the 1,000 men posted there.

     Banks was taken off guard.  Positioned 10 miles west of Front Royal at Strasburg, he was loath to retreat, but had little choice.  Jackson could advance to Winchester and surround him.  By early morning the next day Banks was racing back to his supply base at Winchester 20 miles north.  His army made a gallant stand from a strong position on two hills southwest of the town on May 25th, but the 15,000 Confederates eventually broke the lines of the 6,000 Federals.  The defeat turned into a Union route, but a masterly retreat nonetheless.  Banks’ army didn’t rest until they crossed the Potomac River into Maryland 35 miles north.  The sometimes dis-organized Jackson, couldn’t pursue because he could not locate his Confederate Cavalry, who like the tired and hungry infantry had stopped to pillage the Union supplies left behind by ‘Commissary Banks.’

     The next day Jackson deployed his army to threaten points north, particularly the Union Garrison at Harper’s Ferry.  President Lincoln and the Washington authorities were panicked.   Lincoln ordered General McDowell in the East, and General Fremont in the West to join forces in the Valley in hopes of capturing Jackson with a ‘pincers’ movement.  McDowell complied with the President’s order, but, understanding the Confederate motives, he told the President, in a telegram March 24:

“I obeyed your order immediately, for it was positive and urgent, and perhaps as a subordinate, there I ought to stop; but I trust I may be allowed to say something in relation to the subject, especially in view of your remark, that everything now depends upon the celerity and vigor of my movements.  I beg to say that cooperation between General Fremont and myself to cut Jackson and Ewell there is not to be counted upon, even if it is not a practical impossibility.  Next, I am entirely beyond helping distance of General Banks; no celerity or vigor will avail so far as he is concerned.  Next, that by a glance at the map, it will be seen that the line of retreat of the enemy's forces up the valley is shorter than mine to go against him.  It will take a week or ten days for the force to get to the valley by the route which will give it food and forage, and by that time the enemy will  have retired.  I shall gain nothing for you there, and shall lose much for you here.  It is, therefore, not only on personal grounds that I have a heavy heart in the matter, but that I feel it throws us all back, and from Richmond north we shall have all our large masses paralyzed, and shall have to repeat what we have just accomplished.  I have ordered General Shields to commence the movement by to-morrow morning.  A second division will follow in the afternoon.  Did I understand you aright, that you wished that I personally should accompany this expedition?  I hope to see Governor Chase to-night and express myself more fully to him.
Very respectfully,
Irvin McDowell.”

     McDowell sent two divisions under General Shields and General Ord to the Valley.  The 13th Mass were with General Ord. 

The March

     General Shield’s 10,000 men arrived at Front Royal May 31st, in time to cut off Jackson who was still north of Strasburg.  But Shield’s hesitated, because Gen’l Ord was still a days march behind, and Fremont’s force had not yet appeared from the west. 

 James I. Robertson, jr.  wrote in “Stonewall Jackson,  The Man, The Soldier, The Legend” :  Jackson had no way of knowing that the Union “celerity of movement” necessary for his entrapment had turned into a comedy of errors.’  The author then relates Fremont’s blunders and Shield’s hesitation to attack.

     Way down the chain of command, a private in the ranks, yet a Harvard Graduate and astute observer who would one day prove a very capable officer in the 28th Mass., Private John B. Noyes, complained in letters home, that McDowell could have quickened his advance to Front Royal.  He placed all the blame on McDowell, as at that time, hatred of McDowell was rampant among the officers and men under his command.  (The source of this contempt will be the subject of a future post.)

     In the midst of the campaign on June 8th Noyes wrote his Father* about McDowell’s move from Falmouth to Front Royal :

     "Perhaps the insensate lollygagging of somebody who kept us on the R.R. from Alexandria to Manassas six hours longer than was necessary, that wasted a whole day at Manassas, a second between that place and Thoroughfare Gap by delaying the cars did not occasion the escape of Jackson.  Why in spite of all this delay we were not twelve hours late.   It took us just seven days to proceed from Falmouth to Front Royal.  The men could have performed the journey better in much less time.  Let us see.  We left Falmouth Sunday afternoon.  The brigade should
have been in Alexandria at 10 A.m. Monday, at Manassas at two o’clock, at Thoroughfare Gap at 3 o’clock of the same day, that is to say at Thoroughfare Gap in 24 hours.  This would have been allowing a large margin for the delay in transporting large bodies of men.  It takes but six hours to sail from Alexandria to Acquia Creek, and an hour or so to ride from thence to Manassas, and another hour to ride to Thoroughfare Gap which is but four miles from Alexandria.  We should have then had two days rations in our haversacks.  Instead of being there on Monday, we did not arrive till Thursday, about five o’clock.  The rebels did not destroy the water building I believe til Thursday A.m., or Wednesday, P.m. when Shields who started from Falmouth on Saturday overland was at the heels of the rebels. Tuesday and Wednesday would have brought us to Front Royal, not without having captured small parties of secesh.  We then would have been some 48 hours ahead of Jackson, and placed him between us and Fremont and crushed him.  As it was we were a half or a whole day late, perhaps I ought to say twelve hours.  Shields beheld the rear guard of Jackson retreating some six miles from Front Royal on Sunday A.m.  He came Saturday  P.M. but was compelled to await our coming before he could proceed with his eighteen regiments of infantry and 36 cannon."

     Noyes puts all the blame on General McDowell but for the wrong reasons, sighting professional jealousies as the reasons for McDowell’s delay.  In his letters home, Noyes continued to berate General McDowell for a myriad of other failings as a commander.

     Still, McDowell’s troops, as well as Fremont’s, did tarry, which allowed Stonewall Jackson to escape.   On May 30th, Jackson’s forces “were nearly twice as far from Strasburg as the converging forces of Fremont and Shields.”**   On May 31st Jackson reached Strasburg ahead of the Yankees.  He continued to push his exhausted army south and not only escaped, but out-witted and out-fought the pursuing Federal troops under Fremont and Shields. 

*MS Am2332 (52); Houghton Library, Harvard University
** “Battle Cry of Freedom, by James McPherson; p. 458.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Connecting Links

     It was difficult selecting a topic to post this March.  In February I pushed to finish and publish the latest webpage for my website, which had to do with Jackson’s 1862 Valley Campaign;  To Front Royal and Back.    Then I turned my attention to a presentation scheduled for March 10th at the West Valley Civil War Roundtable.  The topic of my talk was titled “Nine Weeks at Harper’s Ferry.”  It’s based on this page of my website, Nine Weeks at Harper's Ferry, but drew heavily on my ‘John Brown’ blog posts from October.

     It was fun putting together my first ‘PowerPoint’ Presentation for the talk.  I got to incorporate all sorts of interesting pictures into the slide show.   Naturally, for me, I had too much material and didn’t get through it all.   But the talk was successful nonetheless.  This took up all my time in early March and I didn’t know what new subject of interest to post here on the blog.   The subjects of these two projects, the 13th Mass at Harper’s Ferry in 1861, and Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 seemed widely divergent; you might say they were ‘myles’ apart.

     My efforts to research Shields’ and Fremont’s pursuit of Jackson up the Shenandoah Valley, kept bringing me to this website;  Myles Keogh.   I was impressed and eventually solicited the author’s opinions on the campaign, and so made another important Civil War friend and contact.

      As it turns out there is a connecting link between these two stories, and that is ‘Captain’ R. C. Schriber of the 13th Mass.  Words like ‘idiot’ and ‘fraud’ generally follow mention of his name.

     Schriber commanded Company I, 13th Mass., at the Ferry in 1861, and he was also on General James Shields’ staff in the Valley Campaign of 1862.   He was conspicuous enough to earn detailed mentions in 3 books; "Three Years in the Army" (1894) by Charles E. Davis, Jr; "Three Years With Company K" by Sgt. Austin C. Stearns, [deceased] (1976); and "The Strange Story of Harper’s Ferry" by Joseph Barry, (1903).  Perhaps there are more.  These authors only hint at Schriber’s subsequent career with a Maryland Brigade, but at ‘Myles Keogh’  I found some correspondence from Colonel Samuel S. Carroll addressed to Lt-Col. Schriber of Gen. Shields’ staff, and had one of those ‘Aha!’ research moments. "So that's where he went !"

     Schriber always gets a good laugh whenever I give talks on the regiment and the March 10th presentation was no exception.  So, for this post, I offer up excerpts  from my late presentation on R.C. Schriber of the 13th Massachusetts Infantry and the 1st (?) Maryland Cavalry.

Mysterious Captain R. C. Schriber

     At Harper’s Ferry in September 1861, there was a skirmish at Beller’s Mill, (near the town) in which Companies I & K went a ways up Shenandoah Street to some flour mills.   They stayed about 2 hours, then encountered some Rebel cavalry on the way back.  As Company I came down Shenandoah Street shots rang out from the hill above the town.  This may be the skirmish in which Captain Schriber distinguished himself.  At first fire he jumped into the Shenandoah River to hide behind a stone wall that protected the Winchester and Potomac Railroad from the river.  The wall protected him from the bullets, but the strong current of the river nearly drowned him.

     His fine clothes were damaged.  A red sash he wore left a permanent stain on his uniform which no amount of washing could remove.  “It would appear as if his uniform eternally blushed for the cowardice of the unworthy wearer.” *

     Schriber was attached to the regiment at Fort Independence shortly before it left for the seat of war.  He passed himself off as a military officer with experience fighting against the Russians in the Crimean War, and Massachusetts Governor, John Andrew, appointed him Captain, to the 13th Mass.  The claim of war service was highly doubted by those in Company I, under his command.

     At Harper’s Ferry he kept his headquarters on a canal boat, so as to be ready to retreat at any time, his men said.

     He had a good deal of trouble with his men.  Some were in the guard house about all the time. One day he was drilling his company in the manual of loading and firing.  He told them he would put every man in the guard house if they didn’t do exactly as he wanted.  Then he gave the commands…

     “Ready… Aim…   Aim Higher !”

     About ½ mistook his command for “Fire!” ;  and they fired.    Austin Stearns said it was fun to watch the “Dutchman” rave and shout language “not generally heard on drill.”

     His uniform was loaded down with medals and merit badges and the red sash.  After the river incident he lost caste with his men.  Austin Stearns said of him, “He could have fraud wrote after his name and not over express it.”

     Joseph Barry reports his conduct toward the ladies of the town was “disgraceful,” and there is evidence in the original field books of Company I, that he was dealing in illicit horse trading.

     But Captain Schriber’s ambitions could not be contained by the 13th regiment.  By late October he had manipulated his way onto Major-General N. P. Banks’ staff.

     He rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel with the 1st Maryland Cavalry, (Gen. James Shields’ division) but was eventually drummed out of the service for fraud.  He is mentioned in the war department’s ‘official records’ a few times.  One is his report on the battle of Kernstown, explaining his modest role in commanding the troops to victory.  Another mention is found in a  quote of General Shields referencing “deterioration in the situation; Col. Schriber is at work.”

     Here is 13th Mass Historian Charles Davis’s sketch of Schriber:

     “The appointment of this officer to our regiment was an instance of attempting to graft foreign fruit to a native tree.  As it proved a lamentable failure, no apology is necessary for showing him up as a warning to future governors in making such attempts.  The fact that he had expressed a contemptuous opinion of Yankees doesn’t count for much,  but that was no reason why he should make himself conspicuous by peculiarities in dress or manners.  Eccentricities of this kind were unbecoming in a man of such mediocrity as he.

     Evidently the air we breathed was unsuitable for a man of his expansive nature, and we were glad when he shook the dust of the Thirteenth from his feet.  …We watched his career with interest as he sailed aloft, unconscious of his elephantine conceit, soaring higher and higher until he reached the rarefied air of a lieutenant-colonel in a Maryland brigade, where swindling and conduct unbecoming an officer were frowned upon.  Having reached this giddy height he exploded like the sky-rocket, whose flight he so much resembled, and like it plunged to earth again, followed by the fiery tears of his mysterious friends.  He was dismissed from the service, and is, probably, now in ‘Fair Bingen on the Rhine’ relating the heroic deeds he performed in Yankee land to save the Union.”

Note:  *Quote is from Joseph Barry's "Strange Story of Harper's Ferry."
To read more about Capt. Schriber see the link to my website page "Nine Weeks at HF" above.