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.

Chancellorville 1863

After Burnside's fiasco at Fredericksburg, the new leader of the Army of the Potomac, Joe Hooker made a better plan.  He left apart of his army at at Fredericksburg while his main force went upstream to cross Rappahannock unmolested.  Then he proceeded to stuff everything up & make Lee look like a genius.  Lee left a small force at Fredericksburg to watch Sedgewick & marched west to meet Hooker.  Hooker immediately recoiled back into the wilderness.  Lee faced Hooker with 10,000 men & sent Jackson on a flank march though back roads with 30,000 men to attack the Federal right flank. The terain hid both Lee's weakness & Jackson's march.  Jackson's flank attack is legendary.  It drove the Union right back in chaos.  But attacking in such country also totally disorganised the Rebs & Jackson himself fell to friendly fire.  The Union were actually in a good position with interior lines between the two CSA wings, but Hooker didn't have the nerve to use it & pulled back allowing the CSA to rejoin their armies.  He then meekly retired over the Rappahannock.
The wilderness now is still mainly mostly woods with some clearings, but now it is mature woodland with not a lot of undergrowth.  In 1863 it was regrowth after the ground had been raped & pillaged by the early colonists & had a tangled undergrowth.
Jackson's route went along this road though it was little more than a goat track in 1863. 
Hazel Grove was one of good fields of fire on the battlefield.  Hooker gave it up without a fight.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Fredericksburg 1862

We are staying 3 nights at Fredericksburg VA, to have rest from driving, to have a good look at the four major battles nearby & because it has pubs with good grub & beer.

At Fredericksburg in Dec 1862  Burnside provided a textbook lesson on how not to force a river crossing.  First you turn up at the proposed crossing point without your bridging train.  Then you wait 10 days while it comes up & the  enemy concentrates his forces & digs entrenchments around your proposed bridgehead.  Then you launch repeated assaults against the strongest part of the enemy line despite not one attack getting anywhere near the enemy trench line.  And where your diversionary attacks actually do find a weak point in the enemy line, you don't reinforce the break-though & allow the enemy to reserves to re-take it.  And do it in mid winter.
The Rappahannock is a major obstacle.
As at Manassas, there were ready made defenses for the CSA - this time a sunken road with stone walls & a nice rise the artillery to deploy behind it safely firing overhead.
There were a lot less trees on the field in 1862.  If the locals hadn't already cut them down, the sappers did to clear fields of fire.  Repeated assaults failed to to get within 50m of this line.
On the right of the CSA line there was no sunken road, but their entrenchments were so good that 156 years later they are still plain to see.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Bull Run & Manassas

The battlefields of Bull Run 1861 & Manassas 1862 overlap one another.  The ground is mainly reserve & kept fairly close to the original condition, though as usual there are probably more woods now than then.  The one visitors centre serves both.  Bull Run is pretty well covered by a short walking tour of the main point of action on Henry Hill, while Manassas extends over a much greater area & requires a drive around.  Both the battlefields are mainly rolling hills & mostly open ground.  Very different from the western battlefields. 
The Union did well initially & pushed the Rebs back past Henry Hill where the retreating Rebs met reserves coming up & they made a new line of defence in the trees & on the ridge above.
This is the view from the Reb's new position.  The Union guns were on the ridge each side of the farmhouse.  The artillery duel was at 300m range.  The Union failed to break this position & withdrew.
Bull Run at Sudley Ford.

Manassas was a more complex affair going on for 3 days.  Jackson set up behind an unfinished railway cut that made a ready made defensive position as bait to fix the Union for Longstreet to hit in flank.  Pope, the Union commander took the bait.  Jackson's men held on in the face of repeated Union attacks as Longstreet took far too long to prepare to attack.   But once Longstreet finally got moving, the Union position was hopeless.  New York Zouaves put a brave defence on the left of the line to buy some time for retreat & prevent total disaster, but it was a decisive Rebel victory.  It served to stoke the over-confidence in the Confederate command leading to the disaster at Antienam.
A small section of the railway cutting position has been cleared back close to original situation.  The cut runs along the top of the ridge in front of the trees.

The cut is eroded & overgrown now, but was then plenty deep enough to make the Rebs immune from artillery fire & be ready to pop up & blast any attackers.

We enjoyed the return to a less crowded place after the mayhem of Gettysburg, though the presence of two very busy roads intersecting in the middle of the battlefield is a nuisance & major safety issue.  We had to forgo the last station of the tour because of the traffic building up late in the day on the Lee Hwy.

Monocacy 1864

In 1864 Lee sent Early north from the Shenadoah Valley with 15,000 to attack Washington in another desperate gamble.  At the Monocacy River near Frederick in Maryland, 35 miles from Washington, Lew (Ben Hur) Wallace blocked his route where it crossed the Monocacy River with 6,000 men, mostly green Baltinore Militia. There was a wooden covered bridge for the road and a railway bridge both defended by blockhouses.

Early declined to rush the bridges & instead sent his cavalry a couple of k's south to cross at a ford & outflank the Feds.  Wallace saw it coming & set up an ambush in some woods on the edge of a field that stopped the dismounted cavalry when they attacked his flank.  Early then had to send infantry over the ford to do the job.  The second attack succeeded in forcing Wallace to retreat, but Wallace had delayed Early for a day.  This ensured that the reinforcements Grant had sent from the Richmond front by steam boat had plenty of time to get into position to totally remove any optomistic hope the Rebs had of taking Washington by coup de main.
This battlefield wasn't on our list of objectives, but it happened to be only a couple of miles away from our motel on the outskirts of Frederick.  It even had its own visitors centre & a self guided tour route.  It seems to be given undue importance by the line that it saved Washington by buying time.  But surely even the home guard at Washington would have held off Early easily enough given it's defensive works. Or Wallace could have easily marched to Washington & help man the walls with this army.

Everyone has to go to Gettysburg

That everyone has to go to Gettysburg is immediately apparent when you see the size of the car park at the Visitor's Centre.  And the size of the Visitor's Centre itself.  At 9.30 on a June weekday it was already seething when we arrived.  It must be hell on a busy day.  We grabbed the self guided tour brochure & escaped the centre, but still had to cope with the busloads on the way round, especially the convoy of 3 buses full of Marine Cadets.
But crowds aside it is a fascinating battlefield - with terrain that matters, move & counter move.  No surprises for a wargamer of course, but there really is nothing quite like being there.  The Battlefield is in the main remarkably well preserved, though as usual, there are many more trees than in 1863 so fields of fire are sometimes obscured. As usual the Parks Service has done a great job with their interpretive signage & guide brochure.
We could see that Lee might have won it with a bit more luck at critical times, but remain convinced that the campaign was an insane gamble in the first place.
Looking across the ground of Picket's charge from the start point.
And from the Union side.  Everyone thinks the charge was just crazy brave, but a few months later Thomas stormed up the very steep slope of Missionary Ridge against an entrenched enemy & won with minimal casualties.   There were more factors at work than the distance & lack of cover.
We found a quiet place to boil the billy for a picnic lunch at the point of the fish hook near the end of the tour route.  Most of the gawkers had had enough & gone for a Maccas by then.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Camp Cromwell follows Lee North 1862

In 1862 Lee struck north in the hope a great victory there would encourage European powers to recognise the Confederacy.  His first objective was Harpers Ferry, a Federal arsenal town with a garrison of 12,000 men.  It's a very pretty place now, nestled on a promontory between the confluence of the Potomac & Shenandoah Rivers.  It looks easy to defend with Bolivar Heights making a fine defensive line across the neck of the promontory.  But it's overlooked by the bluffs on the other sides of the rivers.  It's like Chattanooga except very much smaller so the town's in range of guns on the surrounding bluffs.
Lee surrounded the town & Jackson attacked it from the west.  Jackson had been stationed there earlier in the war & knew the ground.  He sent a force through the woods at night, dragging 20 guns through the scrub & up steep slopes to outflank the Union position on Bolivar heights & 12,000 Yankees had no choice but surrender.
This is the view from Bolivar Heights looking east.  There were less trees there then.  Finding a Reb division with 20 guns deployed there behind their flank when the Union army woke up in the morning must have been rather dispiriting. 

While the Rebs were taking Harpers Ferry McClennan was massing an army twice the size of Lee's in Maryland.  The sensible thing to do was to declare victory & go home with the spoils of war, but Confederate generals didn't think that way (or at all often).  Lee headed north to Sharpsburg where he Made a stand against McClellan's army at the battle that became known as Antietam.  The battle raged all day with no decisive result as the army of the Potomac again demonstrated the total incompetence of its generals.  They made a series of uncoordinated frontal attacks with no attempt to use their superior numbers to outflank the Rebs.  The first day was a bloody draw.  The next day nothing happened as both sides licked their wounds. 

The Rebs were outnumbered 2:1 & held their ground inflicting 12,000 casualties for 10,000 of their own.  But the North could afford the loss the South could not.  A good general like Grant would have realised that the Rebs were even more stuffed than his own men (with 25% casualties compared with 15%), attacked & routed Lee on day two, but McClennan did nothing & let him quietly sneak away the next night. 

The contrast in the terrain with the battlefields we'd seen in the west is obvious.  The ground is so much more open with fields of corn & wheat, but with some ready made strong points like a sunken road & strong fencing.
A tower built in the middle of the battlefield provides a wargamer's overview.
Looking NW from the tower.  The Union attacked the sunken road from the right.
looking SE from the tower.  The Union attacked from the left.
On the Union left, this is Hooker's bridge.  Rebs dug in on the hill on the other side held the bridge for some hours.
Hooker sent 3,000 men down river looking for a ford, but by the time they found one the Rebs had ran low on ammo & the Feds had stormed across the bridge anyway.  Hooker began to roll up the Reb line, but Hill's Division arrived from Harpers Ferry in the nick of time to hit Hooker in flank & save Lee's butt.
An interesting item we found on the battlefield was the monument to the Federal Irish Brigade - which mentions Tasmania on the side dedicated to its commander.  It was lead by Thomas Meagher who was an Irish revolutionary who was sent to Van Diemans Land but escaped & went to the US.