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To the Gates of Richmond by Stephen W. Sears

to-the-gates-of-richmond-the-peninsula-campaign-by-stephen-w-searsIn To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign, Stephen W. Sears charts the Peninsula Campaign of 1862, Union General George McClellan’s grand plan to march up the Virginia Peninsula and capture the Confederate capital. More men and weapons of war were assembled for this campaign than for any other operation of the American Civil War. For three months, McClellan crawled toward Richmond. When Robert E. Lee took command of Confederate forces, he drove McClellan back to his ships in seven bloody days. How did this happen? Sears examines the men (from lowly privates to generals) and the politics that changed the course of history.

Major General George B. McClellan was a complex figure. He was an outspoken Democrat who expressly fought only to preserve the Union. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and loved the Army of the Potomac. It loved him back. How then, with over 100,000 men under his command, did he not only fail to capture the Confederate capitol, but fail spectacularly?

Sears’ narrative is unparalleled. His writing is clear, concise, and informative. He portrays a McClellan broken by Robert E. Lee’s aggressiveness–his only thought was to preserve his beloved army from what he believed was a vastly superior rebel force. He gave up strategic ground and countless supplies just to escape. The Union Army’s loss of war material in the campaign was “beyond calculation.”

To the Gates of Richmond highlights many surprising details about this early chapter of the war. Not only did the Union Army employ hot air balloons and ironclad ships for the first time, but some soldiers purchased iron plates to use as body armor (soon discarded for being too heavy). The Confederates had tricks up their sleeves as well. General Gabriel J. Rains utilized improvised explosive devices (land “torpedoes”) to harass the advancing Yankees. The Confederate high command frowned on this tactic, however, and transferred him to apply his particular set of skills against enemy ships in the James River.

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The Deterioration of Lee’s Army

Confederate General Robert E. Lee

As I’ve been visiting battlefields and researching the American Civil War in Virginia, and reconciling that information with my own experiences in the military, it hit me what a massive and difficult endeavor fighting the Civil War actually was. At the height of the war in the Gettysburg Campaign, General Robert E. Lee commanded roughly 75,000 men in the Army of Northern Virginia. To put that into perspective, in 1860 Richmond, Virginia had a population of 37,910. How difficult is it to sustain an army the size of a city?

To sustain any army, it needs food, uniforms (shoes especially), guns and ammunition, access to clean water, sanitation, shelter from bad weather, and some kind of medical care. It’s estimated dysentery alone, brought on by poor sanitation, caused over 95,000 deaths in the Union and Confederate armies. 415,000 soldiers died from disease, accidents, drowning, heat stroke, suicide, murder, and execution, far exceeding battlefield deaths. Those are the soldiers that died–far more were simply incapacitated, bedridden, or unable to fight.

It’s incredible how long these large armies continued to fight without just completely deteriorating from attrition alone.

Beyond basics like food, clothing, shelter, and weapons, soldiers need to have a reason to continue fighting–they must believe in a cause, in eventual victory, and be willing to endure hardship and work together, especially in an army where regular pay is virtually nonexistent. This psychological measure of a soldier’s willingness to fight is called morale. Even the best fed and well-equipped army in the world will disintegrate if its morale is low enough.

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Civil War Ballads: High Water Mark

“High Water Mark” is part three in a three-part, 32-minute epic appearing on heavy metal band Iced Earth’s album The Glorious Burden (2004). The three-song serial commemorates the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1861. Former Judas Priest frontman Tim “Ripper” Owens provided vocals on the album. The songs appear to be based on either the novel The Killer Angels (1987) by Michael Shaara or the movie Gettysburg (1993), which was also based on the novel.

[Lee:]
“It was very close yesterday
I thought for sure they would break
But this attack that I have planned
A massive strike across open land
In the center they will break
Plan it well, everything’s at stake
We’ll hit ’em hard, not a silent gun
Before the infantry’s begun.

Execute it well, we risk everything.
It’s in God’s hands now.”

[Longstreet:]
“General Lee I must tell you straight
That I believe this attack will fail.
No 15,000 men ever made
Will overtake that ridge today.
A mile charge over open ground
With Yankee cannon gunnin’ us down.”

[Lee:]
“We do our duty, We do what we must
And in my plan you will trust.”
(Thousands die on this day)
“Execute it well, we risk everything.
It’s in God’s hands now.”

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Civil War Ballads: The Fighting 69th

This song is dedicated to the Union Irish Brigade, which consisted of the 63rd New York Infantry, 69th New York Infantry, 28th Massachusetts Infantry, 116th Pennsylvania Infantry, and 88th New York Infantry regiments. It was first commanded by Colonel Michael Corcoran, then Brigadier General Thomas Francis Meagher, and finally Colonel Patrick Kelly. “The Fighting 69th” was recorded by the Dropkick Murphys for their album The Gang’s All Here (1999) and The Wolfe Tones for Across The Broad Atlantic (1993).

Regimental flag of the 69th NY Infantry

Come all you gallant heroes,
And along with me combined
I’ll sing a song, it won’t take long,
Of the Fighting Sixty Ninth
They’re a band of men brave, stout and bold,
From Ireland they came
And they have a leader to the fold,
And Cocoran was his name

It was in the month of April,
When the boys they sailed away
And they made a sight so glorious,
As they marched along Broadway
They marched right down Broadway, me boys,
Until they reached the shore
And from there they went to Washington,
And straight unto the war

So we gave them a hearty cheer, me boys,
It was greeted with a smile
Singing here’s to the boys who feared no noise,
We’re the Fighting Sixty Ninth

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Civil War Ballads: Tears of a Generation

David Matthews (no, not that one) wrote and recorded this song for Classic Images’ Civil War 125th Anniversary Series VHS (1987) on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House. It also appeared on his 1994 album Shades of Blue & Gray: Songs From The Civil War, released by Delta, and re-released on various alternatively-titled albums over the years. The song touches on the battles of The Wilderness and Yellow Tavern, which preceded the Battle of Spotsylvania. All were part of Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign against Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from May 4 – June 24, 1864.

Skulls remaining on the Wilderness battlefield, 1864.

With their backs against the wall, he drew his saber
With the hot breath of the boys in blue so near
And he chose a darkened forest called The Wilderness
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear
Where the screams of death were all that men could hear

Soldiers smashed into the nightmare bramble
Melting into death’s inferno on they came
And the smoke and fire transformed them into devils
At the end they knew they’d never be the same
At the end they knew they’d never be the same

And the rains became the tears of a generation
Hot winds that fan the fires of victory
Charred ruins were their monuments to glory
Look around you for their painful memory
Look around you for their painful memory

Jeb Stewart’s gray cavalry, pride of the Southland
Gray knights they would ride through the dawn
Invisible armor, still rode at his side
Never was wounded in body or pride
But at Yellow Tavern young Jeb was to die

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Civil War Ballads: Battle of Bull Run

Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” was one of my favorite songs as a kid. My parents had it on an old 45 vinyl record with the classic red Columbia label. Horton recorded other folk songs and ballads, but tragically died in a car accident at the height of his career. “Battle of Bull Run” is not as great as “The Battle of New Orleans,” but it has something of the same feel, including the background drum cadence.

The sun shown bright and clear that day
We all left Washington
To lick the Rebel boys in grey
At the Battle of Bull Run
They came from Pennsylvania and some from Maryland
To see the Rebel boys get spanked by Honest Abe’s broad hand

We said we’ll run ’em to Atlanta and to Galveston Bay
But they ran us back to Washington and Philadelphia
And Philadelphia

The ladies wore their brightest shawls
The gentlemen were gay
They came to see their Yankee boys whip old Virginia
I held my momma’s hand and skipped
When a soldier said to me
Would you rather have Jeff Davis’ hat or the sword of Bobbie Lee

Lithograph from Harper's Weekly depicts Col. David Hunter's brigade charging Confederate forces at First Bull Run

Lithograph from Harper’s Weekly depicts Col. David Hunter’s brigade charging Confederate forces at First Bull Run, July 21, 1861

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