Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburgby Brian Leehan
The smoke had just cleared from the last volley of musketry at Gettysburg. Nearly 70 percent of the First Minnesota regiment lay dead or dying on the field—one of the greatest losses of any unit engaged in the Civil War. Pale Horse at Plum Run is the study of this single regiment at this crucial moment in American history. Through
Minnesota Book Award Winner!
The smoke had just cleared from the last volley of musketry at Gettysburg. Nearly 70 percent of the First Minnesota regiment lay dead or dying on the field—one of the greatest losses of any unit engaged in the Civil War. Pale Horse at Plum Run is the study of this single regiment at this crucial moment in American history. Through painstaking research of firsthand accounts, eyewitness reports, and official records, Brian Leehan constructs a narrative remarkable for its attention to detail and careful reportage.
Word of the First's heroic act at Gettysburg quickly spread along Union lines and back to Minnesota. Their stand late on July 2, 1863, stopped a furious rebel assault and saved the day for the Union. Emerging from the chaos of battle, however, firsthand reports contradicted each other. Confused officers and frightened soldiers told very different stories of the day's hearsay and camp gossip for their sources of information. All of this leaves the historical investigator to ask, what really happened that day at Plum Run?
In order to answer that question, Leehan performs superlative historical detective work. By focusing on the men themselves—and their accounts of the engagement—he weaves together a narrative of the First's action on July 2 and 3. Those who escaped the scythe of battle the first day lived to play a pivotal role the next in rebuffing the most famous infantry assault in American military history, Pickett's Charge. By tracking the movements of individual soldiers over the field of battle, Leehan reconstructs in amazing detail the story of this remarkable band of soldiers.
In his investigation of the battle Leehan raises important questions about how we can really know the truth about the past. In cogent appended essays, the author muses on the lack of standardized timekeeping in the mid-nineteenth century, on the nature of Civil War weaponry, and on the emergence of a heroic mythology after the war.
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Pale Horse at Plum Run
THE FIRST MINNESOTA AT GETTYSBURG
By BRIAN LEEHAN
MINNESOTA HISTORICAL SOCIETY PRESS
Copyright © 2002
Minnesota Historical Society
All right reserved.
Chapter One I had been sleeping with a dead man
SEPTEMBER 20, 1862: "This day will long be remembered by me, for about 8 o'clock a.m. the doctors put me on a table and amputated my right leg above my knee, and from then the suffering commenced in earnest."
So ended twenty-five-year-old Color Sergeant Samuel Bloomer's tour of combat duty with Company B of the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry. This young carpenter's stump would be a lifelong reminder of the agony of Antietam and his personal sacrifice to turn back Confederate General Robert E. Lee's first invasion of the North.
The fall of 1862 found the United States well into the second year of civil war. After a disastrous eighteen months, the federal army finally won a victory along the banks of Antietam Creek in southern Maryland. Lee had tried another of the gambles for which he was becoming famous. He split his army into parts and sent them into Maryland to try and get that border state to rise up and secede from the Union. It would be a significant coup for the Confederate war effort to have the capital of the United States of America-Washington, D.C.-within a Confederate state.
Lee depended on his knowledge of human nature and the temperament of his opponent. His counterpart in the federal Army of the Potomac was Major General George Brinton McClellan, a diminutive West Pointer known affectionately by his troops as "Little Mac." McClellan was a supreme organizer and a true inspiration and bonding force of the army he created, but he was a hesitant and even timid battle commander.
Fate handed him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity prior to Antietam. Two of his soldiers found a copy of Lee's battle orders, dropped in a farm field where rebel troops had previously camped. McClellan now had Lee's entire campaign plan before him and knew that Lee's troops were scattered all over southern Maryland and northern Virginia. Still, he cautiously polished his own battle plans, letting a precious eighteen hours slip by with no movement by his army.
Lee, not the kind of audacious opponent who waited on the enemy, quickly drew his army together on the high ground above Antietam Creek and turned to fight. The tactical draw that ensued left the armies facing each other, the rebels too battered to attack and McClellan with two full army corps still in reserve, refusing to continue the battle. The nearly twenty-three thousand casualties at Antietam make it still the bloodiest single day of combat in U.S. history.
Lee withdrew into Virginia, and President Abraham Lincoln realized he had the closest thing he would get to a victory for a while. He used the opportunity to release his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in states that were then in rebellion against the federal government. He pressured McClellan to take an aggressive posture toward Lee, to pursue him into Virginia, and to attack again before the rebel army could regain its strength.
But McClellan stayed in his encampment around the Antietam battlefield to rest and reequip his army-and to plan. Even a battlefield visit from President Lincoln could not budge McClellan. Looking at the Army of the Potomac spread over the plain below, a frustrated Lincoln commented to an officer that it was not an army but rather "McClellan's bodyguard." For more than a month the Army of the Potomac remained encamped while McClellan readied himself.
McClellan finally started a sluggish movement into Virginia at the beginning of November, but Lincoln had tired of "Little Mac" and relieved him of command on November 7, 1862. Major General Ambrose E. Burnside, commander of the army's Ninth Corps, was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac. Burnside was affable and liked by the soldiers, but he proved to be a poor choice as a general in command of an entire army.
Lincoln had, in fact, approached Burnside about taking command the previous spring during the army's stay at Harrison's Landing at the end of the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia. At that time, Burnside made it clear that he knew himself well and insisted that he was not competent to lead an entire army. After the command was forced on him in November 1862, he promptly proved it.
Burnside moved the army to Falmouth, Virginia, directly across the Rappahannock River from Fredericksburg. It was his intention to cross the river on pontoon bridges and assault the heights behind the city, which Lee's army had fortified. Fredericksburg was a main terminus for roads and rail lines in northern Virginia, directly on the path to Richmond.
Burnside waited for his pontoons to arrive-and waited and waited. The pontoons finally arrived a week later, while Lee had continued to pull his entire army together and strongly entrench and fortify his Fredericksburg position. Burnside sat in Falmouth two more weeks, brooding over his spoiled plan and calculating alternative strategies. In the end, he reasoned that his original plan would be so obvious that the Confederates would never suspect that he would do it.
Burnside counted on his crossing being masked by the city itself, and he reasoned that with rapid construction of the pontoon bridges and quick deployment and assault by his troops, the rebels would be overwhelmed. The attack was to be a massive frontal assault on the Confederate fortifications. It had to be made over six hundred yards of open ground, cut across the middle by a deep canal. The Confederate battle line was behind a stone wall at the base of Marye's Heights, the high ground, with several lines of infantry and artillery entrenched on the Heights.
On December 13, 1862, wave after wave of Union troops charged the Confederate position, and by nightfall more than 12,500 federal soldiers were dead, wounded, or missing in action. The First Minnesota and the other three regiments of its brigade were spared the slaughter. The rest of the Second Corps of the Army of the Potomac was not.
The Minnesotans, and the rest of their brigade, were saved by their benevolent and beloved commander. Brigadier General Alfred Sully, a former colonel of the First Minnesota, apparently was ordered in at some point late in the day. Having watched the useless butchery for hours, he simply refused to order his men forward. Sully later claimed that the order to advance had been countermanded. However, a man in Company B wrote a letter to the Stillwater Messenger newspaper that quoted Sully as saying, "They might court martial me and be damned, I was not going to murder my men, and it would be nothing less than murder to have sent them there."
The regiment was in a forward position on the federal right during the battle, supporting an artillery battery and under continual rebel artillery fire. It was relieved after dark, and the men spent the night sleeping on the sidewalks of Fredericksburg. The next night they were sent out on picket duty in an advanced position in the center of the federal line. They spent the night digging rifle pits on the frozen, open plain. Thomas Pressnell, a nineteen-year-old printer from St. Paul and member of Company C, recalled: "After 3 hours of steady hard work on the trenches I was relieved about 2 o'clock for 2 hours rest. In groping around for a place to lie down I came upon a man covered by a large double blanket. Considering that this blanket was large enough to cover two comfortably, I crept in beside him and in 2 minutes was sound asleep. About 4 o'clock I was awakened by a subdued voice and ordered to 'fall-in.' Observing that my sleeping companion did not move I en- deavored to awaken him also, but there being no response to my kicks. I passed my hand over his face and thus discovered that I had been sleeping with a dead man."
Twenty-one-year-old Private Daniel Bond of Company F remembered the ordeal of holding a position on a battlefield at night. On this night, some of the wounded had been lying between the lines for more than twenty-four hours: "I was again obliged, in the stillness of the night, to listen to the heart rending cries of poor wounded men.... The weather was very cold, and there were men lying with limbs torn from their bodies, on the cold, damp lap of earth. And the icy grasp of winter was freezing their blood as it flowed from the shattered fragments of their mutilated members."
Burnside pulled his army back across the Rappahannock River and went into winter camp. The beginning of 1863 found the First Minnesota and the rest of the Army of the Potomac living in a grim, frozen tent-and-log city surrounding Falmouth. It was one of the worst periods for this battered, abused, and poorly commanded army and has been referred to as the Army of the Potomac's "Valley Forge."
Sixteen-year-old Charley Goddard, a Winona, Minnesota, boy in Company K, wrote to his mother on New Year's:
Camp near Falmouth, Jan. 1st, 1863. Dear mother-I received your kind letter this morning. If you remember we were last year at Camp Stone Md., and I think I enjoyed myself much better than I have here. But I did not come in the Army for enjoyment and I cannot expect it. One year ago last night I was on guard, and on post from 11 o'clock to 1. Had the pleasure of seeing the old year out and new year in and I strained my eyes to see if there was any difference. But the new year looked about the same as the old. That night I let one of my comrades in camp with a bucket of apples and a jug of cidar, but that poor fellow has gone to his last resting place. He was shot at the battle of Antietam in the right breast and died. I would gladly wish him a happy new year, but I cannot.... I take Burnside at his word-he says he cannot command such an army as this, and I think he cannot.
Daniel Bond recalled: "We had but miserable poor quarters this winter owing to the scarcity of timber. Our quarters consisted of a hole dug in the ground, a shelter tent pitched over it. A fireplace dug-out in one side with a little, low chimney over it." Bond's mood in the winter of 1862-63 probably mirrored every man's in the Army of the Potomac. They all had earned the right to be cantankerous. "I have not spoken of a certain peculiarity in my mind at or about this time. That was I was subject to fits of most violent anger, so that at times I came very near striking my officers over the head with my gun. I could not control myself at all. On one occasion when [Artemus] Decker and I were playing at chess, one of these fits seized me and I knocked the board and men all over the tent. This lasted me until the spring."
Determined to do something-anything-to inflict some kind of damage on Lee, Burnside mounted a rare midwinter campaign. He decided to move the army upriver, cross, and try to outflank Lee and drive him out of Fredericksburg. On January 21, 1863, Burnside put most of the army in motion. Almost immediately a cold winter rain started falling and continued to fall steadily for days.
The red, sandy, clay soil quickly turned into bottomless mire. Artillery pieces, caissons, and wagons sank up to the wheel hubs and finally up to the muzzles of the guns. Twelve-horse teams tried to move a single cannon; hundreds of men gathered to try and pull a cannon or wagon along with ropes. The Confederates watched the show from the other side of the Rappahannock, laughing and shouting suggestions. After forty-eight hours the campaign was abandoned, and the infamous "Mud March" ended with the miserable, wet, cold, and filthy Army of the Potomac slogging back to their old camps at Falmouth.
The First Minnesota and its brigade had the good fortune to be camped in view of the rebels across the river. As a result, they were not called on to participate in what was intended to be a clandestine flank maneuver, now turned disaster. Private Isaac L. Taylor of Company E had no particular sympathy for Burnside, but his pragmatic outlook on life and the war left him with little tolerance for the common soldier's tendency to blame everything on the generals. The teacher from Belle Prairie, Minnesota, watched a portion of the exhausted, mud-spattered army march back into camp. With his characteristic droll sarcasm, he noted in his twenty-sixth birthday diary entry-Friday, January 23, 1863: "They have been out during the past three days and look rather the 'worse for wear.' Some of them threaten to 'sit up nights to curse Burnside' for taking them out in the mud and storm. I think, myself, that Burnside ought to be removed for allowing it to rain. If Burnside is not smart enough to out-wit the Lord in these matters, it is clear that he is not the man to handle the Army of the Potomac."
Whether or not it was for "allowing it to rain," Burnside surely set some kind of record for the brevity of his in-and-out performance with the Army of the Potomac; he lasted less than three months. President Lincoln next named Major General Joseph Hooker of the First Corps as commander. Hooker had a reputation for being a courageous and competent officer and had won the confidence and respect of the common soldier. He also had a reputation for denigrating fellow officers and superiors, drinking to excess, and frequenting brothels.
Like many colorful figures, Hooker had a way of generating myths during his own time and after. He was known during the war as "Fighting Joe" Hooker, which was not completely undeserved but still makes him sound more sanguine than he really was. The sobriquet stuck after a newspaper headline during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign was incorrectly typeset. It was supposed to read "Fighting-Joe Hooker," but the dash was left out.
The story circulated long afterward that his penchant for prostitutes resulted in one of their more common slang names. The term "hooker" for a prostitute actually predated the Civil War by nearly two decades. The term came from an area of New York City called "The Hook" that was known for its many brothels.
Despite a promising start and an excellent battle plan to outflank Robert E. Lee's army, Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac had a short tenure, ending in military disaster. He left part of his army, including the First Minnesota, in front of Fredericksburg and made a rapid march upriver with the rest. Crossing the Rappahannock about twenty-seven miles above Fredericksburg, he quickly began sweeping down on Lee's left flank. The remainder of the federal army crossed the river and once more assaulted the city to keep Lee's attention divided.
Lee saw through the ruse and again, contrary to conventional military tactics, split his force in the face of a superior enemy. He left a token force to hold the high ground above Fredericksburg and rapidly marched the rest to meet Hooker at a small crossroads hamlet called Chancellorsville.
The Confederates attacked the federal army aggressively, bringing it to a screeching halt. Hooker actually stopped the advance, to everyone's astonishment, and ordered his lines to fall back. The full weight of Lee's reputation and previous victories finally seemed to have gotten to Hooker. Later, speaking of the battle, he said, "Well, to tell the truth, I just lost confidence in Joe Hooker."
Sensing Hooker's fear, Lee again split his force. He sent Lieutenant General Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and his corps on a wide, arcing march to get on the right flank of the federal army. The march took most of the day. Federal pickets, seeing the movement, frantically reported back to headquarters that an enormous column of rebels was approaching the right flank. The reports were ignored or dismissed as really meaning the rebels were in retreat.
In the early evening Jackson's men came roaring out of the woods and smashed the Union right flank, held by the Eleventh Corps, sending a large portion of the Army of the Potomac into panic and retreat. Darkness was the only thing that stopped Hooker's army from being completely routed. The next day Hooker continued to draw in his lines, and the federals finally retreated across the Rappahannock River and started back to Falmouth.
Excerpted from Pale Horse at Plum Run by BRIAN LEEHAN
Copyright © 2002 by Minnesota Historical Society. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Brian Leehan is a librarian at the Minneapolis Star Tribune. This is his first book.
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