Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Juneteenth General

Gordon Granger (1821-1876) was the general who sparked the first Juneteenth celebration on June 19, 1865. 

Granger was a West Point graduate who served as an officer in US Army for the rest of his life. A junior officer during the Mexican War, he rose to the rank of volunteer major general during the Civil War. His finest moment in the war came during the 1863 Battle of Chickamauga. Major elements of the Union army and Commanding General Rosecrans fled the field in panic, leaving General Thomas and the rest of the army in the lurch against the entire Confederate army. Granger, assigned to guard a path around the Union left some miles away, decided instead, without orders, to march to Thomas’s aid with his green troops of the Reserve Corps. Their intervention allowed Thomas to barely hang on until nightfall and then retreat under cover of darkness. The Union Army of the Cumberland escaped to fight another day.


Granger was rewarded with the command of the veteran IV Corps. His troops performed well at the Battle of Chattanooga, during the impromptu attack that routed the Confederates and restored the reputation of the Army of the Cumberland. Just before the charge, Granger drew Grant’s ire by personally aiming the individual guns of an artillery battery. Grant sent a messenger to order Granger to act like a corps commander and not an artillery lieutenant. Granger continued to rub Grant the wrong way and was assigned to minor operations for the rest of the war.


Granger was sent to command the District of Texas after the war ended. Texas had not been conquered during the fighting, but was included in the general surrender. Plantation owners acted as if nothing had changed. Granger then issued his order #3, which began as follows.


“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection therefore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer." 

This sparked joyous celebrations by the liberated, the first Juneteenth.


When the massive volunteer army demobilized, Granger reverted to the rank of colonel in the small regular army. He commanded the Black 25th Infantry Regiment and later the 15th Infantry Regiment. He became a political ally of President Andrew Johnson, and thus a further opponent of Ulysses S. Grant, who became president after Johnson’s single chaotic term. Granger passed away in New Mexico in 1876.


Happy Juneteenth!

In remembrance of my ancestors, freed from chattel slavery by the Civil War.

Monday, May 16, 2022

Catastrophe on the Penobscot, 1779


I am currently reading “Revolution Downeast, the War for American Independence in Maine” by James Leamon. I spend a lot of time in Maine.  A while back I read “Valour Fore and Aft” by Hope S. Rider, a book about the Continental sloop Providence, formerly the sloop Katy of the Rhode Island Navy. It was the first account I had read of the fiasco on the Penobscot in 1779. That ship had a lucky career, taking prizes and raiding Caribbean islands until it took part in the doomed Penobscot expedition.

Maine, then a sub-colony of Massachusetts, had avoided much more than naval raids from the British until mid-June, 1779. Five Royal Navy warships escorted transports carrying 700 regulars, who landed on the east side of Penobscot Bay and began building Fort George. Massachusetts called for a fleet and an army to seize the fort. To increase participation it agreed to insure any privateer ships taking part. Continental Navy ships, led by the 32-gun frigate Warren, and two smaller ships including the Providence, were the core of the flotilla. Some small ships from the Massachusetts Navy and many privateers, anticipating a windfall, joined in. The flotilla had 19 warships in all, plus 24 transports. 1,500 militia were called for, though less than 1,000 showed up. Those that did were the ones the local militia commanders had the least use for; very young, very old or otherwise less than stellar recruits.


The flotilla was commanded by Commodore Dudley Saltonstall of the Warren. He was a brave ship captain but would prove sadly lacking in higher command. The militia force was led by militia Brigadier General Solomon Lovell, with limited experience and none in independent command. He was a genial sort; the Commodore was not. It was an unfortunate pairing.


The American flotilla dropped anchor within sight of the fort on July 25. The fort was still under construction. A mere three British sloops of war anchored to protect the fort in a strong position. Attacking ships would have to navigate a narrow channel to close. Many naval officers in the flotilla cried for an immediate attack. The Commodore demurred, passing the buck to the General, who also balked. On July 28, 400 militia and Marines landed within striking distance of the fort, scaled a cliff and drove the redcoat detachment back in confusion. The British were demoralized; the fort incomplete, the commanding officer considering surrender. But no further attack came. The attacking force was disorganized by their success and they were not reinforced. The Commodore and the General each tried to get the other to make a move first. British morale recovered as the fort walls grew higher each day. American morale sagged as the two commanders argued, doing little else for weeks. The militia were loath to work and even less inclined to assault the growing enemy works. The two leaders finally decided on a concerted attack on land and afloat, set for August 13.


That day a Royal Navy squadron with a 64-gun ship of the line, 4 frigates, a sloop and a brig arrived, joining the 3 sloops guarding the fort. The privateers fled in terror, joined soon by the state ships. Then the outgunned Continental ships joined the rout up the Penobscot, firing nary a shot. Ship after ship was run aground and burned as the crews and militia fled. The chase continued until nightfall; most ships burned, the rest taken. Crews and militia alike fled through the woods, taking most of a week to escape. Losses were somewhere between 100-500. I suspect the lower number, but the British losses were tiny. Much of this I learned from “Valour Fore and Aft”. That book is a good read, and for ship modelers, a good source for building a replica of the Providence. Ken loaned it to me after using it to build his model.

                                                    Ken's 1/48 model of the Providence.

Edit: re-reading the section about the rout, the Commodore ordered a retreat that degenerated into the rout. I found a British map that contains lots of info, including British losses: Royal Navy, 15 killed and wounded, Army, 70 killed and wounded.

Found another map, not nearly as pretty but makes much mores sense when reading about the action.

“Revolution Downeast”, my current reading, throws further light on this. An inquiry into the causes of this debacle put all blame on the Commodore since he was a Connecticut man and a Continental officer, with no backing in Massachusetts. Massachusetts, nearly bankrupted by the loss of the expedition, was trying to get the Continental Congress to pay the promised insurance bills for all those scuttled privateers. The Commodore was certainly culpable, as was the General. But the General was a Massachusetts politician. His indecision during the siege and desertion during the rout was ignored, as was the generally poor performance by the militia.


I’ve not yet finished the current book. It covers the war in Maine in great detail, possibly too much for some. A close look reveals a good number of people, loyalist and patriots alike, whose political stands and chance for profit were intertwined, rather than the altruism usually cited. Many people preferred staying out of harm’s way to bravery. The book also details the hard effect of the British naval blockade on the economy, the worst burden falling on the poorest, who were reduced to scrabbling for basic needs.


The disaster on the Penobscot is an example of how incompetent leadership of poorly trained forces can waste a huge numerical advantage.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Book Review: A History of Warfare


I recently finished reading this book, published in 1993. Keegan was a very popular military historian. I loved his first book but the glow wore off on his later works. More on that later, but first on to reviewing the book at hand.

  Karl von Clausewitz, 1780-1831

The book has two main thrusts; one, to dethrone Clausewitz, who preached what he considered the eternal truth about warfare - war is politics by other means. Second, war can be about culture rather than politics and there are other modes of war than the western way. Most interesting but Keegan sometimes shoe-horned facts to fit his thesis. For example, he said the chariot warriors were the nomadic precursors of the horse-archer armies (Huns, Turks, Mongols, etc.). He then said that Darius III’s army was chariot based. I find that quite a stretch. The Persians tried to use scythed chariots once, at Arbela/Gaugemela, an experiment that failed signally. Their army at this time seems to have been based on a mix of heavy cavalry, Greek mercenary heavy infantry and anyone else they could get, aside from the ceremonial chariot Darius was perched upon.


Later, in the part about the decline of the later Persian Empire, it seems the Parthian dynasty took power and then was overrun by the Muslim Arabs. No mention of the intervening centuries of Sassanid rule. Minor nitpicking that may be, but every now and then such omissions and/or oversights occur.


His analysis of the Muslim theology/politics struck me as less than convincing. I don’t have a theory of how or why so many Muslim dynasties used slave soldiers (Mamelukes, Janissaries, etc.) but I’m not sold on his; that it was a way for Muslims to get around the ban on fighting other believers, since the slave soldiers were all converts.


That said, the book is quite interesting. Disagreeing with some of his views didn't mean it was all problematic. It has a lot of tidbits that history geeks (like me) will find intriguing. Clausewitz was nearly unknown until von Moltke the Elder (victor of the 1866 and 1870 wars) cited his work. Berthier’s Neuchatel Battalion (I have one in miniature) was taken into Prussian service after Napoleon was deposed and in time morphed into the Prussian Guard Schuetzen Battalion. There are all sorts of these little gems.


Keegan points out that the worship of Clausewitz led western general staffs down the road to the disasters of World Wars I and II. Not all the blame is laid at the foot of that Prussian officer/author, but enough adheres. After the carnage of the world wars, the western way of war has led us to the current dilemma of mutually assured destruction via our arsenals of nuclear weapons. I do agree with Keegan that the cheap weapons saturating the poor nations are the industrial world’s most shameful product. 

If you can find a copy of this book (mine was free), it is worth a read. I don’t take it as gospel.

                                                                 John Keegan 1934-2012

Keegan’s first book, The Face of Battle, was a revelation, like a meditation on violence. I waited breathlessly for his next work, purchasing them as they were published. Each failed to reach the heights of his first. He could always produce an interesting turn of phrase, but the whole book never cohered quite as the first did. In time my worship of him waned. I do find that often the best writing in each book is the introduction, where Keegan revealed more about his personal life. In the first he revealed he’d never been in battle. Later he reported his physical handicap, and growing up in England when the Allied armies were forming up for D-Day. I would pay for a collection of his introductions. Shelf space in my apartment being at a premium, some of his works have been sold to a used book store.   

Friday, April 1, 2022

Twilight of the Sun-King, Balagan version 2

I set up a small test of the new version of these rules that Steven Thomas is working on. This is a work in progress and not to be confused with the published set by Nick Dorrell. They are similar, being based on the first set that Steven posted years ago. I seem to recall that each unit is a foot or horse brigade or a battalion of artillery.


The rules are for the War of the Spanish Succession. I played using Seven years War figures and make no excuses. The Austrians were defending an earthwork with 4 foot brigades (1 of grenadiers, 2 of line and 1 of inferior troops), 2 horse and a battalion of guns. The attacking French had 5 foot brigades (1 of grenadiers, 3 line and 1 inferior), 2 horse and an artillery battalion. About 10,000 vs. 12,000.


The rules have only two types of tests. Units in combat take morale tests to see how they respond. If they fail a test, they take a hit. 4 hits removes foot units, 3 removes horse and 2 removes artillery. The test is with 2D6 and is modified by how threatened the unit is, etc. Players do not roll to hit enemy. They just amass as many threats as they can to make it harder for the foe to pass morale tests. An unmodified score of 4 or less (1-6 odds) turns any attached general into a casualty, who is immediately replaced by an inferior (1-3) or ordinary (4-6) general. This test saw a rather high rate of general officers hors de combat. There is a negative modifier for not having another unit in rear support close by. An ordinary unit has 21 chances of 36 to pass a morale test, barring any modifiers other than troop quality. Take away support and the chances of passing are 15 of 36. This explains the double lines in the photos.


Any movement other than straight forward involves an action test, also 2D6. Do not try to do complicated stuff in front of the enemy. Odds are that you will fail and be hung out to dry. Trust me. Do the fancy footwork far away from the enemy.

Most of the action can be seen on the following photos. Units start deployed on a roll of 4-6, or in march columns and limbered on 1-3. The Austrian die roll noted they were aware of the advancing enemy.

A couple low action rolls impeded the French deployment.


Turn 4 the French artillery failed to deploy and everyone else marked time.

La Sarre advanced and took hits from Los Rios. The following is turn 6. I got a little confused while marking up the photos.

The French CO tried to get the Grenadiers to charge, yellling "En avant!" But through all the racket, they heard "bon vivant" and continued to trade fire with the Austrians.


The action was pretty fast, 7 units vs. 8 resolved in less than an hour, including photo time. I find the rules simple without being simplistic and give a good feel. Hanging out just out of musket range seemed kind of cheesy, but another failed morale test or two would have made that foolish.




Sunday, February 27, 2022

USCT: United States Colored Troops in the Civil War

After the Emancipation Proclamation was issued, regiments of Black troops were raised. The rank and file were northern freedmen and southerners who had first to escape from slavery, making their way to Union lines to enlist. They were not allowed to become officers. As far as I know, only one of the approximately 180,000 was commissioned, as a chaplain. To ensure that the Colored regiments had sufficient officers, white soldiers were given promotions to serve in the USCT. Some joined because they were abolitionists, some for the promotion and pay increase, and some for a combination of both. One unintended result was that most of the officers in the USCT were combat veterans and all had been in service for a while and knew how things should be done in a regiment.


The Black regiments started off with a burden. Many whites thought they would not be any good as soldiers. Any sign of hesitancy would be taken as proof of this. “If slaves will make good soldiers, our whole theory of slavery is wrong” said Howell Cobb, a founding member of the Confederacy who had also served as a Confederate general.

Many of the white volunteer regiments in the Civil War were green when first raised, unacquainted with the realities of combat, from top to bottom. But they didn’t carry the reputation of their race into battle. The 53rd Ohio failed in spectacular fashion at the battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Bullets whizzed through the trees. Colonel Appler, recently a well-to-do civilian and in his first fight, cried out “save yourselves” and rode to the rear. Most of the regiment heeded his words and took off. The three companies that didn’t hear him fell back when they found themselves facing the enemy alone. Appler later found a fallen tree to lay behind, moaning in fear. When one of his officers suggested taking the troops still around the colors back into the fight, Appler mounted his horse, cried "save yourselves" again and fled to the Tennessee River, as did many of his troops. He was later cashiered in disgrace. The 53rd Ohio was declared cowards and the “shame of Shiloh”, along with the 77th Ohio who also bolted early. Both regiments later improved their performance (a low bar) under more competent leadership. Other regiments on both sides would be found wanting, though the egregious failure of the 53rd heads the list. While the two regiments were discgraced, no one said this proved white men could not make good soldiers.


USCT regiments went into battle with that burden added to those that all green troops faced. They had strong motivation to fight the “slave power” (as many Unionists termed the Confederacy) and most of their officers had “seen the elephant” (Civil War slang for experiencing combat). Seasoned officers gave the green USCT regiments an advantage over the other green units. No Black regiment gave ground without first taking hard knocks. None questioned their valor after they went into combat, whether at Milliken Bend, Fort Wagner or Baton Rouge, all in 1863. They had additional burdens. If captured, they often faced summary execution, or, at best, return to slavery. If a Black regiment had behaved in any way like the 53rd Ohio, it would have been taken as "proof" of the inferiority of African Americans.


Many USCT regiments had the misfortune of serving under less than impressive higher command. Benjamin Butler, an adroit politician who respected his African-American troops, was deficient in the military skill department. Also deficient were Ambrose Burnside (Battle of the Crater 1864), Truman Seymour (Battle of Olustee 1864) and others. It must be said that many white troops also suffered under sub-prime generalship. But the 180,000 USCT troops fought valiantly. Any failings were at a higher level. They made an important contribution to the final Union victory.


Sergeant William Carney, 54th Massachusetts, and his Medal of Honor awarded 37 years after being badly wounded carrying the National colors  to and from the parapet during the assault on Fort Wagner.