Archive for November, 2013

by Andy Mateja

Many people remember Lewis “Lew” Wallace from his literary masterpiece BEN HUR published in 1880. Historians however remember Wallace from his earlier military service during the Civil War. As a division commander serving under Gen Ulysses S. Grant in April 1862 at the Battle of Shiloh, Wallace’s performance was marked with controversy and became a blemish on his record. Grant himself reprimanded Wallace for his tardiness arriving on the battlefield which Wallace attributed to “confusing orders” and following the wrong road. Wallace was stripped of field command not long after the battle.

Two year later as Grant continued to apply pressure on Gen Robt E. Lee’s beleaguered forces entrenched around Richmond and Petersburg, Lee tried another of his audacious offensive gambits by dispatching his Second Corps under Lt Gen Jubal Early on a raid northward to threaten lightly defended Washington DC. This was a bold move Lee believed no one in the North expected and would result in relieving pressure on Richmond & Petersburg by drawing Union troops northward to defend the U.S. capital.

Initially Lee dispatched Early’s troops to help defend the Shenandoah Valley against Union troops under Gen David Hunter who had already captured Staunton and Lexington VA and burned the Virginia Military Institute. Early linked up with Confer ate forces under Maj Gen John C Breckenridge (a former U.S .Vice –President) and successfully “bluffed “Hunter out of the Shenandoah Valley. After retaking Staunton and Lexington, Early headed North down the Shenandoah Valley toward Winchester, gathering food supplies and shoes for his men while panicking another Union force into fleeing the valley.
Early then crossed the Potomac into Maryland to continue his threatening move on Washington DC

Lew Wallace now commander of the Middle Department of Baltimore, closely watched Early’s action moving down the Shenandoah Valley, and when Early crossed over into Maryland, Wallace decided to take decisive action.

Wallace moved his available forces to the Monocacy Junction, which wedged him between the roads leading to Washington DC and Baltimore. Communications from the Valley had been slow in arriving to Washington as to the exact whereabouts of Early’s forces. The Union forces supposed to hold the Shenandoah Valley had already fled and Early’s Confederates were now between them and Washington .

Wallace had already been aware that the massive defenses surrounding Washington DC were vastly undermanned and the intelligence reports as to Early’s whereabouts either incomplete or completely wrong. Even Grant believed Early was before him in Richmond at the time – which was over 100 miles from where the Confederate raiders actually were at that precise moment.

Despite Wallace’s’ repeated warnings that Early was close at hand with a large enemy force, the military brass in Washington DC refused to believe him. Nonetheless, Wallace decided to take the initiative and reconnoiter the ground around his current position to make sure he was in the best defensible position to resist an attack.

Early had received modified orders from Gen Lee in which he was to create a diversion near Baltimore in an effort to free 18,000 Confederate prisoners being held at Point Lookout, only a short distance away. It was believed that with the freed prisoners added to his already large force, his move on Washington would be irresistible for the meager Union troops defending the capital.

Wallace pondered the situation and realized his only course of action was to save Washington and resist Early’s advance the best he could, while buying time for Grant to hopefully send relief in time to hold the capital. Wallace accepted the fact that his men would be sacrificed in their resistance and along with the 8th Illinois Cavalry, who had joined Wallace in attempting to delay the Confederate advance.

Confederate cavalry was on the verge of circling around Wallace and flanking him by capturing Frederick MD when they received conflicting orders to fall back. This stroke of luck prevented Wallace falling back from his defensive position which would have opened the road to Washington for Early.

When Grant finally realized Early was no longer in front of him at Richmond, he offered to send an entire corps of reinforcements to defend Washington DC. However the military brass, still in denial about the imminent threat from Early, declined Grant’s offer. Nevertheless, Grant dispatched a division anyway which turned out to be fortuitous as well.

Early delayed his advance another day, while he ordered his cavalry to bypass Frederick and head straight for Baltimore cutting telegraph lines along the way. He was then to move to Point Lookout and free the 18,000 Confederate prisoners and lead them to Early’s main force. This action inadvertently provided enough time for Wallace to divert the Union reinforcements sent by Grant to aid him in holding Monocacy Junction.

As Wallace observed Early’s forces approaching him, he realized that, even with the diverted reinforcements, he was vastly outnumbered and decided to fall back across the Washington pike and hold at all hazards. He made this fateful decision on his own…knowing he had no support from Washington for his actions.

When the Confederates entered the now abandoned city of Frederick, they demanded and received a $200,000 ransom for not burning the city. Early then launched his attack against the Union troops across the Washington Pike. The savage attack by the Confederates was repulsed twice amidst heavy casualties before the third and final attack broke through the Union position. Wallace’s casualties were high (more than 50%) and now the path to Baltimore lay wide open for the Confederates.

Despite the consternation caused by the Confederate cavalry, cut telegraph wires and torn-up railroad tracks. Early’s target was Washington DC – not Baltimore. Being compelled to rest his army after the fierce fight with Wallace, Early continued his advance on the US capital. However because of his fight with Wallace, his army was delayed another day which allowed Grant to get additional reinforcements to Washington in time to meet Early’s attack and prevent its capture. By the time Early finally reached the outskirts of Washington DC, there were thousands of fresh Union troops on hand to defend the city. Less than 24 hours earlier, there were only 209 defenders available to meet Early’s attack.

Gen Lew Wallace, risking his career, decided on his own initiative to fight to save Washington instead of retreating against overwhelming odds. His actions truly saved the Nation’s capital by delaying Early’s attack a couple of days. If Early had bypassed Wallace’s small force, he could have attacked Washington DC long before help could have arrived, captured the city and literally changed the course of history ………………….

by Andy Mateja

As another chapter in the hard luck saga Chambersburg Pa experienced during the Civil War, not only did Gen Robt E Lee’s Confederate forces invade this sleepy little Pennsylvania hamlet the year before the battle of Gettysburg, but elements of his detached cavalry returned once again a year after the epic battle to wreak havoc and misery on the town and its ill-fated occupants unlike anything previously experienced before.
Near the end of July 1864, two Confederate cavalry brigades under the command of Brig Gen John McCausland undertook an appalling raid on Chambersburg as retaliation in part for the recent burning of Virginia Governor Jon Letcher’s and Congressman A.R. Boetler’s homes by Union troops. McCausland demanded a $500,000 ransom from the people of Chambersburg… part of which would furnish payment for the damages to the Confederate politicians’ personal residences. If payment was not received promptly, the 5000 citizens would watch as McCausland burns their town to the ground in retribution. This he felt would dissuade further wanton behavior by the “Yankees” toward their opponents’ personal property.
Union Maj Gen Darius Couch and his staff vacated the town just before the Confederate raiders arrived. Unfortunately they also took most of the money, including the gold, with them, thereby leaving the town leaders nothing with which to pay the ransom.
The town was quickly set ablaze and along with all the commercial buildings, hundreds of personal residences were also burned to the ground while there former occupants stood by ….completely helpless. Fortunately none of the citizens were killed or injured during this raid.
McCausland and his raiders left the town around noon on July 30th, entirely engulfed in flames. Shortly thereafter Union cavalry pursued the raiders and chased them back into Virginia, but not before more than $3 million dollars in damages were incurred by the citizens of Chambersburg. Chambersburg was never the same after that and many of the citizens left the city and lived the remainder of their lives elsewhere.
While Southern towns were routinely pillaged by Union troops, Northern towns up till now had not experienced such malicious treatment. The deplorable destruction of Chambersburg and the hardships levied on its citizens would remain a painful memory for generations, and had a lasting impact on Gen Phillip Sheridan’s Union troopers who, just a few months later, would put a torch to the Shenandoah Valley under the guise of military necessity. Could vengeance have been in the heart of some of them….particularly those Pennsylvanians soldiers from the Chambersburg region ….????