Tag Archives: Civil War

Little Mac Attack

When my great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, served in the Union’s Army of The Potomac in 1862, Major General George B. McClellan was in charge. At West Point, classmates nicknamed him “Little Mac” in joshing reference to his short stature. After elevation to overall command of the US Army, he earned a new sobriquet: “Young Napoleon.” This illustration may show a small resemblance.

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Rarely have soldiers and politicos disagreed so vehemently about a General.

McClellan’s troops are known to have “adored” their General, hailing him as “charismatic” and “highly popular.” Conversely, President Abraham Lincoln (and his cabinet) belittled McClellan, especially with news reporters in earshot.

Was this a case of the tall man (Lincoln) putting down the small man (McClellan)? Or was it the case of a Major General with a minor talent for aggressive warfare?

History, as it is said, is written by the victors. Lincoln demoted McClellan. In the Presidential Election of 1864, McClellan ran as the Democratic candidate against Republican Lincoln. Lincoln won. McClellan lost.

As the original Napoleon might have said of the outcome:  “C’est la guerre.”

Napoleon_in_His_Study

Yell Like Furies

None of us alive today has ever heard the screech of a rebel yell at the point of attack in the Civil War. But many veterans of those times recounted its effect.

For Confederate soldiers, while at a full forward sprint, the piercing yowl sounded more animal than human, enflaming their courage to do-or-die.

Southern Colonel Keller Anderson described it this way: “that maniacal maelstrom of sound; that penetrating, rasping, shrieking, blood-curdling noise that could be heard for miles and whose volume reached the heavens–such an expression as never yet came from the throats of sane men, but from men whom the seething blast of an imaginary hell would not check while the sound lasted.”

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On Union soldiers, the effect was truly terrifying, as attested by northern troops: “If you claim you heard it and weren’t scared that means you never heard it.”

Near the beginning of the Civil War, when rebel forces scattered federals at the First Battle of Bull Run, General “Stonewall” Jackson exhorted the 4th Virginia Infantry with this order: “When you charge, yell like furies.”

I can scarcely imagine the spine-tingling horror my great-grandfather, Abraham Van Orden, experienced the first time his ears were assaulted by the rebel yell.

Chasseur, For Sure

When my great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, enlisted the in the NY 12th Infantry of the US Army on January 27, 1862, General Daniel Butterfield was in overall command of that brigade. Just 30 years old, Butterfield was already renowned for three things. First, his career rocketed from Sergeant to General in just a few months, before he served on a battlefield (this earned him enemies). Second, he was fond of stylish military uniforms (this earned him critics). Third, he sported an awesome full mustache (this earned both admiration and jealousy.)

Daniel_Butterfield

A vain man, General Butterfield wanted his Corps to stand out for its uniforms. So he advocated purchase of French Chasseur uniforms for the 12th volunteers. If war was decided by style alone, his choice may well have been victorious.

Unfortunately, Chasseur uniforms were made in too small a size to fit most Americans. However, Archie being only 16 at the time he received his Chasseur uniform, was able to wear it with pride, no doubt cutting a fine-looking figure. This shows how he may have imagined it would appear in gallant warfare.

1861 Chasseur Uniform

In actuality, few (if any) Chasseur uniforms were ever worn on the battlefield.

Butterfield himself, however, went on to gain fame as the composer of “Taps”, the bugle call played at the end of the day, and also at funerals.  But he gained notoriety when he became chief-of-staff serving General Hooker. It was said that General Hooker’s command post was a sordid mixture of bar-room and  brothel. From this place came a slang term for prostitutes who were known as “hookers.”

Crossroads of Death

My last post was entitled “Crossroads of Life”, focusing on the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, forever changing America for the better.

This post is entitled “Crossroads of Death”, for a key battle that took place in the same time period, beginning December 31, 1862, and ending January 3, 1863.

The USA called it The Battle of Stone’s Creek. The CSA called it The Battle of Murfreesboro.  Either way, it was a watershed clash with critical consequences.

Rosecrans_at_Stones_River

Of all the battles in the Civil War, the highest percentage of casualties on both sides occurred here. One out of every three soldiers engaged in this bloodbath was either killed or wounded. The carnage was inconceivable. As confederates charged one key federal position, four of every five attackers were shot down. No surprise that this hillock was thereafter dubbed “Hell’s Half Acre.”

Prior to this turning point, southern armies in the eastern theatre had repeatedly whipped the northern armies. But Union General Rosencrans proved at Stone’s Creek that the boys in blue could give as good as they got. Northerners finally won a hard-fought struggle with bravery, determination and sacrifice.

Eventually, this battle would enable Union General Sherman to seize control across  Tennessee, readying a surge into Georgia, dealing a mortal cut to the CSA. When my great-grandfather, Archie Van Orden, read news of the great victory at Stone’s Creek, it steeled his resolve to re-enlist for the US Cavalry in 1863.

A Fish Named Hamilton

Hamilton Fish was a boyhood chum of my great-great-grandfather, Abraham Van Orden, in NYC. They remained friends throughout life. As fortune would have it, his friendship not only helped Abraham in adulthood, he even rescued my great-grandfather, Archie Van Orden, during his days of direst war horrors in late 1864.

United_States_Representative_Hamilton_Fish_1844_Fenderich

Even in young adulthood, Hamilton demonstrated innate talent for politics. Perhaps this was a genetic predisposition, as he was a descendant of Pieter Stuyvesant, Director-General of the Dutch Colony of Nieuw Netherland in 1647 (which would become New York in 1664 ). From those 17th century roots, the Fish and Van Orden families became neighbors, collaborators, and friends. Hamilton’s parents, Nicholas and Elizabeth, named him in honor of their friend, Alexander Hamilton, who was a Founding Father of the United States of America.

Hamilton Fish would be elected by the people of New York to serve as State Representative, NY Governor, and U.S. Senator. An early and vital supporter of Abraham Lincoln as the Republican Party Candidate for President in 1860, Hamilton would be recognized by Lincoln for his exceptional abilities, with presidential appointments both during and after the Civil War.

Hamilton_Fish_Brady_Edited

Thousands of Union troops were spared horrible extremes of pain and death through the personal intercession of Hamilton Fish in southern prison camps. Thus, it is no surprise that Archie’s younger brother, my great-grand-uncle, was named Hamilton Fish Van Orden in honor of that great man and patriot.

Anaconda Strike

In 1861, Winfield Scott was Commanding General of the US Army. This old hero of the War of 1812 remained strategically sharp, though he became infirm and obese. Yet, as the painting shows, in his prime, Scott was an impressive officer.

Winfield_Scott_-_National_Portrait_Gallery

Building from his experience and advice from others, Scott proposed a Civil War grand strategy that was known colloquially as the Anaconda Plan. This name was inspired by the world’s largest snake, which crushes the life out of any prey.

Scott-anaconda

As we see in this illustration, a blockade of southern ports was key to the plan. In my own analysis, I would say his full strategy could be called “Three Lethal Cuts”: First, Cut Off (coastal embargoes); Second, Cut Down (amphibious assaults down the Mississippi River, severing the Confederacy in half); Third, Cut In (rampaging from west to east through Tennessee and Georgia, destroying many CSA assets).

My great-grandfather, Archie Van Orden may have read of Scott’s Anaconda Plan in northern newspapers of 1861, before enlisting, for this was no national secret. Carrying out the plan would take years and cost almost innumerable lives — but eventually the strategic brilliance of Winfield Scott won the day, and the war.

 

When Rights Collide

Recently, I concentrated on blogging about Key Persons, Key Events, Key Artifacts and Key Places in the life of my great-grandfather, Archibald Van Orden, during his service in the Union Army at the time of the Civil War. All of these posts reflect my research as I write the novel inspired by his exploits.

Now I turn back to societal context which spawned war itself, to set the stage.

Boiling it down, my studies lead me to conclude there were two irreconcilable positions held in the United States in 1860 (and all the years prior to that time).

The right to liberty collided with the right to property.

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It is nearly impossible for us today to conceive, or accept, that slaves were not only considered inferior, they were the personal property of their slave holders.

Alexander Stevens, who became Vice President of the Confederate States of America, boldly spoke a noxious belief in the right to property at its extreme: “the negro is not equal to the white man; slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” [I must add that I abhor and reject everything within his statement.]

On their right of personal property, the southern states would not budge an inch.

Against this stand stood the newly ascendant Republican Party in northern states, determined to restrict, diminish, and eventually destroy slavery in our nation. They believed in the self-evident and unalienable right to liberty, as written  in the Declaration of Independence, in which “all men are created equal.”

By 1861, the right to liberty became the unstoppable force believed in the North, while the right to property remained the unmovable object believed in the South.

No compromise was possible. The clash was inevitable, cataclysmic, and deadly.

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John Brown, an abolitionist executed for leading an insurrection to free slaves in 1859, expressed this certainty using these immortal words :

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”

—John Brown’s last words, written on a note
handed to a guard just before his hanging