Tuesday, July 02, 2019

A little bit of War of Independence

On our way to the naval museums near Norfolk we visited Yorktown.  The British were left cut off in the fortress after the French won a rare naval victory in Chesapeake Bay.  Washington's army was also supported by French infantry, artillery & engineers.  Cornwallis surrendered his army to pretty well hand the Americans victory in the war.  Some of the earthworks remain, but it's hard to tell how much is original or restoration.

On our way from Washington to Philadelphia to drop off our hire car, we stopped off at Brandywine Creek.  In 1777 Washington's army stood on the banks of the Brandywine covering the fords to block a British advance on Philadelphia.
The river is mostly deep & uncrossable, but had frequent fords.  The Brits very sensibly scouted out fords upstream of the American defences, posted their Hessians to threaten the fords in front of the Americans & sent their main force on a 16 mile flank march.  They hit the American flank in the late afternoon.   The Americans tried to deploy to meet it as the Hessians attacked their front, but Washington had been well & truly outsmarted by Howe & they had no hope. 
Dusk & the British lack of cavalry saved the Americans from a complete disaster.  The memorial plaque tried to put a good spin on it by exaggerating the British numerical superiority (other sources put the numbers involved at nearly equal).

The battlefield was not a great one to visit.  Being a decisive defeat, it is not a battle the Americans like to make much of.  There was a visitor's centre, but it was closed on Mondays when we were there.   The only part of the battlefield made a park was a small part around Washington's HQ & there were no information panels or leaflets.  For once we had to rely on Googled maps & GPS to find our way around the battlefield.  The main part of the field is covered with subdivisions of McMansions & it is impossible to tell what the original pattern of woods & fields were.  You can only see that it was rolling countryside & that the battle was all about the fords.

So ended our road trip through the battlefields of the US.  In just under 4 weeks, Chris drove us nearly 4,000 miles (6,300 km) on the wrong side of the road without mishap while I became pretty efficient at car sat nav.  We visited over 30 battlefields plus many forts.  Along the way we saw a great cross section of the US countryside, warts & all.  Battlefield to battlefield is a great way to choose a route, we saw everything we intended to see & a whole lot more discovered by serendipity on the way.  We'd both wanted to do this for a long time & enjoyed every day of it.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

USS Monitor & USS Wisconsin

At the Mariners Museum near Yorktown they have the original turret of the Monitor, raised from the seabed a few years ago. 
This a replica of the terrut as it was when raised - the original is in a vat being preserved.
There is a full sized reproduction of the turret as was built next to it.
And a a full sized replica of the whole vessel outside.  There is also an excellent doco on the fight between the Monitor & the Virginia & full sized replicas of portions of both ships you can walk though & compare them side by side.

Across the bay in Norfolk there is another museum, not nearly so good a museum, except that it included the USS Wisconsin in all her glory.
We loved the 1913 Dreadnought USS Texas we saw at the start of our trip.  But the Wisconsin is truly a thing of beauty - the last Dreadnought built & the acme of battleship design. 
Those 3x16" gun turrets are seriously impressive. 
In the museum there was part of a 16" barrel salvaged from one of Wisconsin's sisters when she was scrapped.

Friday, June 28, 2019

On to Appomattox


While the two armies eyed each other across no man’s land at Cold Harbour, Grant was doing the logistics for his next move.  The Union army then disappeared & Lee had no idea where it went. Grant took his army right around Richmond across two major rivers to attack Petersburg south of Richmond.  If the Union took Petersburg Richmond would be cut off from supply & doomed.  But once again the Army of the Potomac moved too slowly.  It broke through the outer defences, then dithered while the Confederates made a new line.   Lee’s army hunkered down behind a hundred miles of entrenchments, matched by a parallel line of Union works.  More attempts to break though were made without success, then winter came & the war ground on into 1865.
Much of the entrenchments remain visible today, especially in the area north of the James & around Petersburg.  It was WWI 50 years ahead of time.
But by the spring of 1865 the Union had constructed a military railroad around the outside of the lines around Petersburg & had the logistics in place to strike west & finally cut Richmond’s supply lines.  Sheridan outflanked the defences of Petersburg & on April 1 Picket’s division was overwhelmed at Five Forks.  The last railroad to Richmond was cut & Lee had no alternative but to withdraw.  He struck west with the Union army baying at his heels.  Early’s Division was cut off & captured at Sailor’s Creek.  By April 9 Lee was 100 miles from Richmond, but realised he too was cut off & surrounded by the Union army & he surrendered his remaining 30,000 men to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse. 

We followed the lines from the James to the Appomattox River, then around Petersburg.
There are an awful lot of remains of fortifications around Richmond & Petersburg.  Mostly they are now masked by woods preventing you seeing their lines of. But the info boards often have wartime photos that allow you see what they were like at the time.  As in these now & then pics of Fort Johnson above. 

Fort Drewry was a Confederate fort that stopped the Union gunboats going up the James to bombard Richmond.  They tried, but the CSA guns were too big & too well sited.

Finally at Five Forks there was open battle again.  But not a very interesting battlefield being flat with patches of woods that may or may not relate to what was there in 1865.  The Rebs had a bad luck day.  Their general was absent having a late lunch when the Union attacked & part of the attack missed the Reb's left & accidentally outflanked it.

But at Five Forks we found the start of the Lee’s Retreat Trail & we just had to follow that all the way to Appomattox.   The sites of series of actions on the way were not very photogenic, but we got the feel of the desperate situation Lee's army was in.
We finish our Civil War campaign with a selfie at Appomattox.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The 7 days 1862

In 1862 the area around Cold Harbor was the scene of the 7 days campaign where Lee, with a great deal of help from McClellan, stopped the Union advance on Richmond north of the James River.

The area is strewn with battlefields, mostly small ones, but we contented ourselves with the two bigger & best preserved ones - Gaines Mill & Malvern Hill.  You have to walk to see these battlefields properly & it was just too damned hot to do more - the weather app said "93F but feels like 99F because of the humidity".

McClellan sat motionless with most of his army facing a forlorn hope allowing Lee to take the initiative.  At Gains Mill Lee gained numerical superiority despite Jackson not showing up on time.   At tremendous cost the Rebs repeatedly attacked the strong Union position until weight of numbers eventually told & the Union army broke.  But more importantly McClellan's nerve also broke & the began the tradition of the Army of the Potomac & gave up at the first reverse.
 The Union position was naturally strong.  They were deployed in a wooded valley steep enough so the 2nd line could fire over the 1st.  They also had an open plateau behind which must have made it easier to keep command control & to deploy reserves.
For once it seems the woods are not much different now as then, though after a few exchanges of fire, there would have been a lot less leaves on the trees. There was no entrenching then, just some improvements to the natural defenses in the trees.

At Malvern Hill a few days later, a Union rearguard stood on it chosen ground to allow McCellan & the main army to retreat back to their fortified supply base.  This time the Union deployed on open farmland with steeps slopes or swamps protecting their flanks.  Once again Lee threw men against a good defensive position, but this time he couldn't break it.
The Union guns had perfect fields of fire.
The Confederate losses in these battles far exceeded the Union's.  In aggregate, Lee's casualty rates were much higher than Grant's but the myth persists that Grant was a butcher & Lee a genius.  But Lee's profligacy with his men's lives may well have had a positive result.  lt may have been one of the reasons that McCellan was convinced he was outnumbered.   

Cold Harbor 1864

After the North Anna, Grant lopped SE to the Totopotomoy Creek where he ran into Lee again.  They faced of for a bit with some skirmishes between the lines before Grant moved on again, possibly looking for battlefield with a name people could pronounce. He found that at Cold Harbor.

Again the Army of the Potomac couldn't move fast enough & Lee dug in on another defensive line. The ground was mostly pretty flat open farmland.  There are a lot more trees there now, but the main feature of the battlefield remain plain to see - that is the two parallel lines of entrenchments.
Lee's inaction in recent weeks made Grant think the CSA army might be ready to crack.  There were no flanks to go round, so he ordered massed frontal assaults.  Arguably one too many, but his plan was sound enough. If he broke through, the war was over in 1864.  If he failed, it was not a disaster as Lee did not have the numbers to exploit it.  So it was a gamble worth taking & when it didn't work, Grant had another plan.
As we followed Grant & Lee towards Richmond we saw the art of entrenchment advancing rapidly.  It was taking them less & less time to throw up better & better defenses. 
And it was not just the Rebs, the Union were digging in furiously too.

Another feature we noticed at Cold Harbor was rifle pits for snipers.  In 1864 both sides were putting their best marksmen out as snipers to harass the enemy. (As General Sedgwick found to his cost at Spotsylvania).

Monday, June 24, 2019

The North Anna 1864

Grants move on Richmond from Spotsylvania CH was blocked by Lee at the North Anna River.  The CSA dug in on a strong position following ridge lines usually with clear fields of fire over fields & in places further strengthen by the river. The union only made one serious attack - where a drunken Brigade commander got carried away in the hopeless attack & managed to cause almost all the 2,000 casualties a side.

I suppose due to the low level of actual fighting the battle gets less attention than most even though both armies were there in strength.  There is no visitors centre, just a carpark with a box with a 1 page guide map to a walking tour.  Much of the battlefield is on private land,  but the part where the action is is preserved & the walking trail has excellent interp panels.
Many of the confederate fields of fire are now obscured by the woods regrown, but the entrenchments of both sides remain still very visible after all those years.
There are even the odd Scheesh still lurking in the trenches.

The significance of this battle is more in what didn't happen than what did.
1) Lee thought he had lured Grant into a trap because the Federal army was split by the V in the CSA line & he intended to attack & split the Union army in two.  But he got dysentery & was too ill to proceed with the plan.  The Virginians who wrote the interp panels seem to think this was terrible bad luck for the Confederacy.  But I think they underestimate Grant.  A CSA attack is just what Grant would have wanted.  A more likely result of such a move would have been the mauling of Lee's army counterattacked while out of their trenches.
2) Grant read Lee's inaction as a sign that his army was rooted after the Wilderness & Spotsylvania CH - which is why he persisted at Cold Harbour longer than he should have.

Spotsylvania Court House 1864

The collision of the two armies at Spotsylvania CH resulted in a frenzy of digging in by both sides.  The hastily drawn CSA line had a weakness in the form of a U bend - to become known as The Bloody Angle.  Grant recognised the weakness & tried to break it.  Lee recognised that he couldn't afford to lose it until he'd built a new & better line behind it.  The irresistible force met the immovable object & the battle raged for days - both at the angle & at other points in the line.  Lee was so desperate at one point he felt he needed to lead a counterattack himself, but heroically let his men persuade him not to put himself at such risk. But the CSA held on & Grant moved on towards Richmond again.
The terrain at Spotsylvania CH is again the mix of woods & fields.  The CSA position usually being trenchworks in front of woods with a clear field of fire.  The Union made similar positions, but seldom had to defend them.
We returned to Spotsylvania a couple of days later on our own way on to Richmond as there was a small re-enactment event on.  We caught their practice manoeuvres before the crowds arrived after church.

The Wilderness 1864

In 1864 the Army of the Potomac returned to the Wilderness, but this with US Grant in command. The inherent sluggishness of the Army of the Potomac thwarted Grant's plan to get out of the Wilderness before Lee could get ahead of him so once again they fought in the Wilderness, a little west of the Chancellorville battlefield.  Again Lee tried flank attacks, albeit on a small small scale than the year before.  But he was fighting a different beast this time.  Grant did not lose his nerve, he reformed his lines & the armies fought each other to a standstill.  But unlike his predecessors in the Army of the Potomac, stalemate did not mean defeat to Grant.  He moved not backwards, but sideways - towards Richmond.   Once again the Army of the Potomac moved too slow & Lee just managed to get to Spottsylvania Courthouse first.
A feature of both the Wilderness battlefields is the extensive lines of trenches thrown up by both sides.  Dug in a matter of hours they are still there after over 150 years.  By this time both sides automatically dug in if there was any threat of attack.