Flanking movements: Dark Humor and sarcasm from the US Civil War

The Soldier’s Journal, 22 June 1864
The Soldier’s Journal, 22 June 1864

I stumbled across this while doing research for a paper. Soldiers often develop a dark humor as they cope with the exasperating extremes of a military campaign…from the intensity of combat, to the boredom in-between battles, and often in the face of perplexing leadership decisions.

This article was printed in the June 22, 1864 edition of The Soldier’s Journal, a Union-sympathetic newspaper, toward the end of the war. It demonstrates very well this dark humor, and the amazing resilience of the soldiers fighting the war. Below is a close up of the relevant portion. In case you can’t read it, here’s a transcript:

“The rank and file have a pretty good appreciation of the strategy of the campaign. They understand that it has been a series of splendid flank movements, and flanking became the current Joke with which to account for everything from a night march to the capture of a sheep or pig. A poor fellow, terribly wounded, yesterday, said he saw the shell coming,’but hadn’t time to flank it.’”

Bear in mind, this shell took the soldier’s arm off just the day before.

Close up of article.


Military Theory and the U.S. Civil War (Part 1)

Last week I played spectator to a couple interesting debates on a Civil War round table page on Facebook. An article was posted with the perpetually provocative subject of who the best generals were during the Civil War. In the same forum, the question was asked “who was the most responsible for the length of the Civil War?” You can imagine the passions stoked here. I’ve got my own opinions about both of these debates, but they point to a larger discussion that periodically surfaces among Civil War historians, and that is whether the military leaders of the North and South adhered to, or were guided by, contemporary military doctrines? This series of articles explores this question, and I think sets up an interesting context when one considers things like “who was most responsible” for how long the Civil War lasted.*

Colonel Burnsides brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by A. Waud
Colonel Burnsides brigade at Bull Run, First and Second Rhode Island, and Seventy-First New York Regiments, with their Artillery, Attacking the Rebel Batteries at Bull Run. Sketched on the spot by A. Waud

When war broke out in April 1861, both the Union and the new Confederate government were faced with daunting tasks in building up their small, standing armies. Despite the looming threat of conflict prior to Fort Sumter, precious little had been done to prepare the people of the North or South for the war to come. It is often stated that neither side was truly ready for war when hostilities broke out. The same could be said for the preparedness of American military officers. Many of the most renowned Union and Confederate leaders were the products of the nation’s only national military education institution, the U.S. Military Academy. War theory was taught and studied by military officers in the pre-Civil War period, but the translation of theory into practice was uneven between the North and the South. Institutional and political obstacles complicated any semblance of a unified strategy for the Union, where military leaders clung to long-understood principles of mass and movement. In the South, the nature of the conflict and the existence of natural interior lines of operation allowed for a more plausible employment of a unified military theory.

The war was going to be won quickly, most seemed to agree, as both sides brimmed with confidence. The reality, of course, was far more traumatizing than most dared imagine: four years of war at a cost of over 620,000 soldiers killed by combat, disease, or malnutrition. The Confederacy mounted fierce resistance that frustrated and horrified the North. Legions of historians have debated how and why the South ultimately lost, or perhaps more accurately, why it took the North so long to win. This is particularly interesting since many of the most celebrated names from the conflict started their careers at the same place, West Point, and studied the same professional curriculum. Yet, most would agree that the first two years of the war went poorly, if not outright humiliatingly, for Union forces. The Confederate army, led by larger-than-life generals such as Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and P.G.T. Beauregard, repelled the Yankees at nearly every significant battle. Popular sentiment in the North turned indignant as defeat after humiliating defeat flew in the face of the real and perceived advantages supposedly at the Union army’s disposal. What could explain these outcomes? In particular, how could the Union army appear to be so lacking in the execution of war while their Southern counterparts, with whom they had studied the “art and science of war,” were so successful? Did either the Union North, or the Confederate South, formulate and execute strategy and/or operations using a shared military theory framework?

From the 1950s – 1970s, Civil War historians largely accepted that the writings of Antoine Jomini had the most significant influence on the military leading up to and during the conflict. J. D. Hittle, David Donald, Joseph Dawson III, and others have

Carol Reardon's
Carol Reardon’s “With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other” questions just how influential Jomini’s writings were with Civil War generals.

little doubt as the importance of Jomini to the 19th century American officer. Recent works however, such as Carol Reardon’s With a Sword in One Hand and Jomini in the Other, questions just how significant Jomini’s influence actually was during this period in the United States. Her work, which focuses on the North, places Jomini in a backdrop of many other theorists and writers of the 19th century, directly questioning the near exclusive influence earlier writers accepted. Scholars such as Reardon, Hermann Harraway, and Archer Jones, challenge Jomini’s influence, and in some aspects question whether there was any real theoretical underpinnings at all used by Civil War military generals. In the South, the assumption of Jominian influence is even more prevalent. Scholars point to Jefferson Davis’ “Offensive-Defensive” strategy as firmly rooted in the writings of Antoine Jomini. This, too, has come under criticism of late.

As stated, in the decades prior to the South’s break with the Union, the United States had only a single national institution for military education, the Military Academy at West Point. The focus of the academy’s mission, however, was not to be solely, or even primarily, military thought and leadership. President Thomas Jefferson, in an attempt to overcome the objections of politicians suspicious of a professional military establishment, allowed that the new academy would primarily be a scientific institution.[1] More specifically, engineering was the most important course of instruction from the time of its first class in 1802 to the Civil War.[2] A review of the curriculum – which varied over the years – demonstrates that of the decades leading up to the war, only in the student’s final year of instruction was there taught specific military education. For instance, in 1840, first year students studied primarily mathematics and French, which was essential to later engineering studies. Second year students continued these subjects, and added drawing and English grammar to the course load. In the third year, natural philosophy, chemistry, and more drawing was the focus. Only in the final year did students take on courses in infantry tactics and artillery, along with the study of ethics, mineralogy, and the course for which West Point was most famous, engineering. This curriculum would remain largely unchanged for fifteen years, when cavalry was added by 1855. By 1859, “ordinance and gunnery” was also included.[3]

The writings of Antoine Jomini were often copied and quoted by professional soldier and armchair generals alike during the Civil War
The writings of Antoine Jomini were often copied and quoted by professional soldier and armchair generals alike during the Civil War

This training orientation of West Point emphasized scientific learning over education in the art of war.[4] For some time during the antebellum period, West Point was considered the premier school of mathematics in the nation. Its reputation was such that, by 1819, some complained that the school was useless in producing soldiers since it was primarily concerned with mathematics.[5] The focus on science and engineering endured for decades. However, starting in the 1830s, recent Academy graduate-turned professor Dennis Hart Mahan started infusing concepts of the art of war into the courses.

Mahan, a brilliant engineer and mathematician in his own right, found much to learn from Europe in regards to both engineering and warfare. It is here that we see the most significant link between the teachings of Jomini and the curriculum of West Point. Interestingly, Mahan, who spent four years studying in Europe — from 1826 – 1830 – seemed to purposefully exclude Carl von Clausewitz from his personal study. Mahan rather brought back with him Antoine Jomini’s theories, and in 1836 not only published an adaptation of Jomini’s principles, but also published in 1847 his own guide to warfare titled Advanced Guard, Outpost, and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers. This lengthy title was shortened by his students to simply “the Outpost.” There are, arguably, Jominian influences throughout the book. Chapter one deals with tactics, which is broken down between minor and grand tactics, in a similar vein as Jomini. “Minor, or elementary tactics; under which head may be placed all that refers to the drill, or other preparatory instruction of the troops, to give them expertness in the use of their weapons, and facility of movement.”[6] Grand tactics is the “Art of combining, disposing, and handling of troops on the field of battle.” Compare these to Jomini’s definitions: tactics “begins with the details, and ascends to combinations and generalization necessary for the formation and handling of a great army.” Grand tactics, says Jomini, is the “art of making good combinations preliminary to battles, as well as during their progress.”[7] In like manner, we see parallels between Mahan’s concept of strategy with Jomini’s. Both are concerned with bases of operation, objective points, and lines of operations. While Mahan was certainly scholar enough to extract lessons drawn from history on his own (both Mahan and Jomini were greatly influenced by the study of the Napoleonic Wars and wars of antiquity), there is much that suggests European influence in his works. Perhaps not exact copies, but the definitions certainly share fundamental notions. Eventually, The Art of War itself was introduced into the West Point curriculum in 1860.[8]

Civil War era Military Academy Cadets
Civil War era Military Academy Cadets

Scholars have debated the quality of the military education provided to officers graduating the academy by the time the Mexican-American War broke out in 1856. Samuel Watson, in his review of the historiography of the US Army prior to the Civil War, notes that most scholars acknowledge the engineering focus of the school, as well as “moribund” military expertise. Others dispute this characterization, and argued that the engineering mentality imbued West Point students with a cautious mindset that served them well.[9] General Winfield Scott, who would be the first general-in-chief when the Civil War broke out, apparently agreed with the latter interpretation. He heaped praise on West Point graduates, saying that without them the war would have likely dragged on with significantly greater cost.[10] Even so, Mahan revised his thoughts on military theory after the war concluded in 1848, ever ready to refine the instruction on the art of war.[11]

For better or for worse, Mahan’s instruction and mentorship, which lasted from 1830 until his death in 1871, arguably shaped many of the primary leaders of the armies of the Civil War. This notable group includes Jefferson Davis (class of 1828), Robert E. Lee (class of 1829), P.G.T. Beauregard (class of 1838), George B. McClellan (class of 1846), Ulysses S. Grant (class of 1843), William T. Sherman (class of 1840), and many more. It therefore seems reasonable, if Mahan was an admirer or disciple of Jomini, to see the Swiss theorist’s ideas in play throughout the conflict. As previously mentioned, much Civil War scholarship of the 20th century is based on this premise. David Donald declares unabashedly that the first years of the conflict “reads like little more than exegesis of Jomini’s theories.”[12] But as recent scholarship challenges this assumption, we need to look at Jomini’s definition of strategy. From there, we can better judge whether the decisions and actions of the national and military leadership for the Union and the Confederacy conformed to anything close to his theory.[13]

* It was McClellan.


[1] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country: A History of West Point (Baltimore: John’s Hopkins Press, 1966), 18.

[2] Ibid, 89.

[3] The West Point Official Registers detail student rosters, military and academic staff, and the “order of merit” of the students in each of the courses. West Point Official Registers for 1840, 1855, 1859,

[4] Stephen Ambrose, Duty, Honor, Country, 89.

[5] Ibid, 90.

[6] Dennis Hart Mahan, Advanced Guard, Outpost, and Detachment Service of Troops, with the Essential Principles of Strategy, and Grand Tactics for the Use of Officers of the Militia and Volunteers (New York, E. Craighead, 1847), 32.

[7] Antoine Jomini, The Art of War, trans. H. Mendell and W. P. Craighill (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1879), 132, 378.

[8] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era, 2d edition (New York: Vintage Books, 1966),

[9] Samuel Watson, “Continuity in Civil-Military Relations and Expertise: The U.S, Army during the Decade before the Civil War,” The Journal of Military History, Vol 75, Issue 1 (Jan 2011): 223-224.

[10] R. Earnest Dupuy, Men of West Point: The First 150 Years of the United States Military Academy (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1951), 19.

[11] Ibid, 20-21.

[12] David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 90.

[13] Jomini states that strategy embraces 13 points, the first eight of which are arguably more strategic than the final five, which are more operational: 1. the selection of the theater of war and the different “combinations” within it; 2. the determination of the decisive points in these combinations; the selection of a “fixed base” and zone of operations; the selection of the objective point (offensive or defensive); the strategic fronts and lines of defense; selection of the lines of operations leading to the objective point; the identification of the “best strategic line;” the eventual bases of operations and the strategic reserves. The final five points include “marches of armies” or maneuver; the relation of the maneuver to the selected depots; identification of strategic fortresses as a refuge; points for entrenched camps; and “diversions to be made, and the large detachments necessary.” Antoine Jomini, ibid, 137.

The Union’s Intelligence Chiefs: The Bureau of Military Information

Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters
Brandy Station, Va. Col. George H. Sharpe, John G. Babcock, unidentified, and Lt. Col. John McEntee, Secret Service officers at Army of the Potomac headquarters

The first such organization of its kind in a modern military, the Bureau of Military Information sought to provide the commander of the Army of the Potomac with all-source intelligence capabilities. Despite its rapid maturation and success, it was abandoned after the war. For a comprehensive history, read Edwin C. Fishell’s excellent The Secret War for the Union, The Untold Story of Military Intelligence in the Civil War, from which much of this post is derived.

General Joseph Hooker
General Joseph Hooker

General Joseph Hooker:

Quickly after taking command of the Army of the Potomac in Jan, 1863, General Hooker ordered the establishment of an organization to “organize and perfect a system for collecting information as speedily as possible.” The order was directed to General Marsena R. Patrick, the Provost Marshall.

General Marsena R. Patrick
General Marsena R. Patrick

As part of his duties as Provost Marshall, General Patrick was responsible for the disposition and interrogation of prisoners and defectors. Originally concerned specifically with the security of Washington, Hooker’s mandate to create a “secret service” was the first step toward creating an institutionalized intelligence service for the military.

Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Hooker
Maj. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, Chief of Staff to General Hooker

General Hooker’s Chief of Staff. Butterfield’s vision and administrative skills were critical to establishing an efficient intelligence reporting system.

Gen. George H. Sharpe, the first head of the Bureau of Military Information
Gen. George H. Sharpe, the first head of the Bureau of Military Information

The first chief of the new military information bureau, Sharpe would oversee the coordinated intelligence operations of espionage, prisoner interrogations, cavalry reconnaissance, the Union Signal Corps, newspaper intelligence gathering, and balloon and signal tower surveillance. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, p297)

John G. Babcock (pictured at top, in group photo)

While a private in the Union army, Babcock’s gift for cartography caught the attention of General McClellan. After a stint working for the infamous Alan Pinkerton, General Burnside offered Babcock Pinkerton’s job once the McClellan spy chief left with his former boss. Babcock accepted, and was hired as a civilian. He stayed on once the Bureau of Military Information was established. (See Fishell, The Secret War for the Union, pp 154, 257-258).

The talents of these leaders were instrumental in the creation of an efficient intelligence organ for the Union.The quality of the Bureau’s reporting was quickly evident. In this dispatch, dated June 7, 1863, sent to General Butterfield, then-Col Sharpe outlines Confederate force disposition, assessed intent, and enemy troop strength.

“Letter of intelligence to Butterfield and Lincoln”, 7 June, 1863

The above image is only the first page (full letter and transcript can be found by clicking the image, stored by the Library of Congress), but within it Sharpe provides an updated threat assessment of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s forces since the battle at Chancellorsville (which ended 6 May, 1863). “I estimated them then at 4700 men in the aggregate, for duty. We now estimate the same at 7500 men for duty.” Equally as impressive is how Hooker sought to qualify other intelligence in the same letter, rather than present sketchy information as more credible than could be vouched for (as was often the practice by many a general before). “We have considerable reason to believe that two brigades of cavalry have recently arrived from the direction of North Carolina not heretofore connected with General Stuarts command. We can of course give no estimate of their force; but it would not be safe to put them down at less than 1500 men to a brigade.” The Bureau began to make rapid strides in making American intelligence operations more professional, more analytical, and more reliable.


The Culture of War, Part 3: The English during the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763)

The War Period (1754 – 1763) – The English

Middle British colonies in USA 1771
Middle British colonies in USA 1771

Colonial soldiers of the 18th century, particularly those of the provincial forces, were arguably mischaracterized for much of recent history. Often described as social dregs and castoffs, historians such as Fred Anderson and John Ferling contend that quite the opposite was often true. For example, using census data and “descriptive lists” of the manpower of six Massachusetts regiments in 1756, Anderson demonstrated that a vast majority of the documented militia were young, skilled laborers or farmers who likely struggled to find employment as the population of the state exploded.[1] The same can be said for the Army regulars, whether English Red Coats or Americans in the professional army. Peter Way finds that, in similar fashion as the New England provincials, British recruits were usually skilled laborers who, due to a lack of opportunity in their trade, opted for employment as soldiers.[2] A small sample of data for recruits from Boston appears to line up with this assessment for American recruits.[3] In addition, in New England, provincial forces grew from a tradition of military service, having provided soldiers for King William’s War (1689 – 1697), Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), and King George’s War (1740s).[4] Interestingly, this relative military readiness, combined with the fact that the powerful Iroquois Six Nations were seated in New England, effectively shielded the region from much of the war’s combat (with some notable exceptions in the first years of the war).[5] The French and Indian War largely hinged on the Ohio Valley region.

Virginia Colony Coat of Arms
Virginia Colony Coat of Arms

In Virginia, although the demographics were significantly different than in New England (almost half of the Virginia regiments in 1756 and 1757 were foreign born, as opposed to only 3% in Massachusetts), we see a similarity in that volunteers were for the most part not unskilled laborers (only 1 out of 10 were indicated as such).[6] And while the same history of military service did not exist in Virginia, these volunteers were far from the wretched castoffs expected, as “planters and skilled artisans” responded to the call for service in greater numbers than had been expected.[7] However, the war with the French was not popular in Virginia, as many thought the conflict was nothing more than a greedy expedition to benefit the Governor and the Ohio Company seeking land in the west. [8] So what could induce self-identified skilled laborers and planters to volunteer to fight in an unpopular war? The answer may be due to the specific culture in the South. Unlike in Massachusetts, where the economy was based heavily on family farming and which offered land and work opportunities for the young, in Virginia this work was completed by slaves. This being the case, young laborers and immigrants may have found it difficult to find an alternative to employment in the provincial military.[9]

In Pennsylvania, the cultural landscape significantly impacted the ability of the colonists to fight in the war. In fact, the political role played by pacifist Quakers in the region resulted in an inability to form a regiment until 1756, when a number of Quaker leaders withdrew from political office.[10] This pacifist resistance to supporting war, whether specifically against the French or generally in defense of the colony, emerged as early as 1755, when the Pennsylvania Assembly passed a tax to support the war effort. Although it seems the greater Quaker church resolved to support the civil government, even if that government engaged in war, strong pacifist tendencies contributed to a disorganized and sluggish response to threats against the province’s outer settlements.[11] General Edward Braddock, the first British commander-in-chief sent to the colonies, admired the military spirit of the New Englanders and commended Virginia for her response to the call to arms. But Pennsylvania’s lack of enthusiasm and preparedness left him with “no words to express his wrath.”[12] It was in this climate of martial malaise, as the Delaware and allied Indians raided into Pennsylvania, that Lieutenant Colonel John Armstrong launched his raid against Kittanning in a desperate attempt to allay the mounting fear of the western settlers. Armstrong’s raid resulted in the death of the infamous Indian war leader known as Captain Jacobs, along with (according to Armstrong) no less than “thirty or forty” dead Delawares.[13]

In general, the colonial provincial forces of the colonies reportedly performed quite poorly during the conflict. On 2 July, 1758 while British and American forces labored to construct a road to facilitate the assault on the French fort at Louisburg, General Jeffrey Amherst stated in amazement “The covering Party and 500 Pioneers marched and what is incredible to believe, lost their way where one would think ’twas impossible to do so and tho’ they had the Engineers with them.”[14] A year later, in June, when certain supplies did not arrive, the general noted sourly “The Provincial Troops deserted most shamefully.”[15] In a reference to other provincial soldiers shortly after Canada capitulated, Amherst wrote (apparently in reference to general performance or to a lack of needed equipment), “I sent away about 500 Provincials …They are so poorly they can do no work … It froze hard last night.”[16] If historians such as Anderson and Ferling dispute that such performance resulted from provincials being pulled from the social dregs of the colonies, then what would explain this? For one, a gap in military culture had evolved between the New England provincials and the professional Red Coats. The young colonist force, in what might be seen as embryonic Revolutionary War mentality, believed that relations between men (which would include between officers and soldiers) was a form of contract or agreement. The English Red Coats and their officers, by contrast, made it clear that such relations were regulated by “status and coercion.”[17] This “coercion” usually took the form of corporal punishments (such as lashes from a cat-o-nine tails) that many times resulted in death. John Knox, in his journal, described the penalties for desertion and appearing to support desertion:

One soldier was sentenced to receive a thousand lashes for absenting his duty and using expressions tending to excite mutiny and desertion. A second for being disguised with an intention to desert and being out of his quarters at an undue time of night to receive three hundred. A third for an intention to desert one thousand. And a fourth for desertion and endeavouring to inveigle others to desert to suffer death.[18]

Benjamin Franklin (Joseph-Siffrein Duplessis (1725–1802))
General Edward Braddock
General Edward Braddock

Perhaps giving voice to colonial disgust of harsh army discipline, Benjamin Franklin said of General Braddock that he was “too mean a one of both Americans and Indians.”[19] It appears that in some instances, colonial provincial soldiers simply did not relate to the English way of war anymore.


North America was only one theater in a transatlantic war. However, it was not only where the Seven Years’ War began, it was arguably the greatest prize, establishing (as T.R. Clayton states) “the foundations of the nineteenth-century British empire.”[20] For nine years, the French and English powers in the New World warred over the heart of North America. Both empires and their colonies had ample experience fighting each other, and both had experience interacting with native peoples. The tie breaker could have been the numerical superiority of the British colonists. Why then did it take so long to attain victory? Certainly military and political forces across the globe were important. But two broad, culturally-based factors hampered English effectiveness: first, that uneven colonial martial cultures (as demonstrated between New England, Pennsylvania, and Virginia) meant that the southern colonies were not as prepared to fight as the New England colonies. Secondly cultural misunderstandings of Native American war fighting values turned entire nations once friendly to the English against them. The end result of these two factors was to complicate operations in the Ohio Valley as the southern colonies endured unexpected attacks from former allies, and arguably lengthening the length of the war.

[1] Fred Anderson, “A People’s Army: Provincial Military Service in Massachusetts during the Seven Years’ War,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d series, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Oct 1983), 505, 507.

[2] Peter Way, “Class and the Common Soldier in the Seven Years War.” Labor History 44, No. 4 (November 2003), 461.

[3] Ibid, 463.

[4] John Ferling, “Soldiers for Virginia: Who Served in the French and Indian War?” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 94, No. 3, Virginians at War,1607-1865 (Jul., 1986), 316.

[5] David L. Preston, The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 150.

[6] John Ferling, ibid, 314.

[7] Ibid, 317.

[8] Ibid, 316-317.

[9] Ibid, 326.

[10] Daniel P. Barr, “Victory at Kittanning? Reevaluating the Impact of Armstrong’s Raid on the Seven Years’ War in Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), 15.

[11] For a detailed description of the Quaker schism in regards to the French and Indian War, see Jack D. Marietta, “Conscience, the Quaker Community, and the French and Indian War,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 95, No. 1 (Jan., 1971), 3-27.

[12] Francis Parkman, France and England in North America, Vol. 2 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983), 981.

[13] This number is disputed by many historians. Daniel P. Barr, ibid, 22.

[14] Amherst, Jeffery. The journal of Jeffery Amherst, recording the military career of General Amherst in America from 1758 to 1763 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1931), 61.

[15] Ibid, 112.

[16] Ibid, 261.

[17] Fred Anderson, Crucible of War, 288.

[18] John Knox, An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760, ed. Arthur G. Doughty (Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1914), 209.

[19] Francis Parkman, ibid, 973.

[20] T.R. Clayton, “The Duke of Newcastle, the Earl of Halifax, and the American Origins of the Seven Years War.’ The Historical Journal, vol. 24, no. 3 (Sep 1981), 571.

Lieutenant Jones’ Intelligence Network and the Evacuation of Harper’s Ferry, 18 April 1861

The burning of the United States arsenal at Harper's Ferry, 10 P.M. April 18, 1861

“Up to the present time no assault or attempt to seize the Government property here has been made, but there is decided evidence that the subject is in contemplation, and has been all day, by a large number of people living in the direction of Charlestown; and at sun-down this evening several companies of troops had assembled at Halltown, about three or four miles from here on the road to Charlestown, with the intention of seizing the Government property, and the last report is that the attack will be made to-night. I telegraphed this evening to General Scott that I had received information confirming his dispatch of this morning, and later to the Adjutant-General that I expected an attack to-night. I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces, and my determination is to destroy what I cannot defend, and if the forces sent against me are clearly overwhelming, my present intention is to retreat into Pennsylvania.”

First Lieutenant Roger Jones, Mounted Rifles, U.S. Army, reporting on the situation at Harper’s Ferry, 18 April, 1861.

Days after the fall of Fort Sumter, the vulnerable military outpost at Harper’s Ferry was on high alert. Lieutenant Jones had been growing increasingly pensive as reports arrived of groups of Southern troops arriving in the vicinity intent on seizing government property. His concerns were quite legitimate. The Union army at this point was still woefully undermanned for any significant combat operations (perhaps explaining why a First Lieutenant was commanding the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry). Additionally, the historic arsenal was surrounded by high ground: the Maryland Heights to the east, and the Loudon Heights to the south. Harper’s Ferry was, in the words of historian James M. McPherson, a “trap waiting to be sprung by any force” that could place artillery at those locations.[i]

Harper's Ferry, photographed immediately after its evacuation by the rebels. 1861Both the Union and the Confederacy would find defending Harper’s Ferry difficult. This photo was taken after Confederate forces found the position untenable as well.

Of course, much has been written about these earliest days of the war. What I want to draw attention to here are these words of Lieutenant Jones above: “I have taken steps which ought to insure my receiving early intelligence of the advance of any forces…” This statement demonstrates the reality of military intelligence operations during the Civil War era. For most of the conflict, intelligence operations were the responsibility of the commanding officer. There was no institutional support for such activities, and the successful use of intelligence rested almost exclusively on the skill and disposition of the officers in charge. If the officer had little ability or faith in intelligence (as demonstrated by many military leaders of the time), then his operations usually would benefit his forces little, or actually impede battlefield success.

It would appear the Lieutenant Jones’ home-spun intelligence network was effective in this case. Shortly after the above dispatch was sent to Washington, Jones became convinced that he could not defend Harper’s Ferry. “Immediately after finishing my dispatch of the night of the 18th instant,” he informed Winfield Scott, ”I received positive and reliable information that 2,500 or 3,000 State troops would reach Harpers Ferry in two hours…” He set out immediately to destroy some 15,000 arms within the arsenal in an attempt to deny their use by the rebels, then evacuated his command to Carlyle Barracks, Pennsylvania. But the next four years of combat would reveal just how inconstant Union and Confederate leaders would be in the effective direction of intelligence operations.


[i] James M. McPherson, Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 106-110.

Quotes of Lt Jones taken from the official records of the Union and Confederate armies. / Series 1 – Volume 2.

The Culture of War Part 2: The War Period (1754 – 1763) – Native Americans

The War Period (1754 – 1763) – Native Americans

"Nouvelle-France 1750" by JF Lepage
“Nouvelle-France 1750” by JF Lepage

To a certain extent, Native Americans living in the Ohio Valley region, as well as some still dwelling on the periphery of the English colonies, found that their interests lined up quite neatly with those of the French, whose government operated to the north in Canada. By the time war broke out, the British colonies in North America overshadowed the French presence on the continent by a ratio of at least twenty to one.[1] As English incursions into the Ohio Valley grew by the year, the leadership of New France determined to take action or else risk losing their hold of American territories altogether. Similarly, the indigent tribes of the valley, which now included Delaware and Shawnee tribes, also needed to halt English westward expansion. The Delaware and Shawnee had previously been relocated from their traditional eastern homelands by the English (with the help of the Iroquois Confederacy). These peoples needed little incentive from the French to attack the English.[2]

"An Indian village on the move."
“An Indian village on the move.”

Encouraged by French authorities, bands of Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingoes started to raid settlements on the fringes of western Pennsylvania and Virginia.[3] United by anger of the enemy English in the east and supported by French allies to the north and west, Native American raiders engaged a largely unprepared settler population on the fringes of the Anglo colonies. Men were killed, often brutally so, and women and children were taken prisoner (although some of these were killed as well).[4] The outlying settlements were scattered throughout the western wilderness and nearly impossible to defend. Indian war parties effectively emptied out many of the existing settlements, all the while waging a terror campaign rarely observed in traditional Indian warfare.[5] The objective was to force the English to recognize the land rights of the displaced Indians, and terror was the instrument to force the colonists to negotiate. These tactics were exceedingly successful, as these bands of “only a few hundred Indians” supported by French supplies, effectively paralyzed Virginia and Pennsylvania from 1754 – 1758.[6] According to Thomas Monte, writing in 1756, raids from Ohio-based Indians “…killed above a thousand inhabitants of the western frontiers.” But, he added, “The death of these poor people did not remain long unrevenged.”[7] In September 1756, Lieutenant Colonel John Armstrong of Pennsylvania led a retaliatory raid against Kittanning, one of the primary Delaware villages used to stage attacks in the colony.[8] Although the success of the raid is a subject of some historical debate, it does demonstrate what David L. Preston describes as a growing of violence and hatred between the colonists and Native Americans – “raids and counterraids and a series of individual and mass murders…”[9]

Two infamous incidents rooted in cultural misunderstandings between the colonists and two separate Indian peoples had far reaching consequences. The first involved a band of Ohio Shawnee, who were on friendly terms with the English. In April 1753, a year before the greater war began, a Shawnee raiding party entered South Carolina, intent on raiding an enemy tribe (the Catawba). We may see here an example of what Wayne Lee described as warfare to teach a political lesson. The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had signed a peace treaty with the Catawba two years prior. The Shawnee, although nominally under the Six Nations, were longtime enemies of the Catawba. The goals of the raid were to provide glory to the members of the war party, and to demonstrate Shawnee resistance to Six Nations authority.[10]

However, suspicious South Carolina militiamen, on the lookout for hostile Indian raiders, apprehended the party. The Shawnee were largely amenable, since the English were considered friends, and agreed to accompany the militiamen to meet with Governor James Glen. This proved ill-fated, as the party was soon thrown into jail. The fundamental misunderstanding by Glen of Shawnee cultural perceptions of the incarceration precipitated a full blown crisis. The governor sincerely felt the action was reasonable, particularly since the prisoners were well treated. To the Shawnee, however, the perceived betrayal by an ally was a terrible affront. To most Native Americans, incarceration was viewed as humiliating, and in this case particularly so since the purpose of the original raid was to enhance the raiding party’s war fighting stature.[11] Two months later, in a speech to the king of the Catawba, Governor Glen demonstrated the European cultural fixation on the illusory central authority of the Six Nations over subordinate tribes. Apparently unable to distinguish the actions of the Shawnee from the Six Nations, Glen warned the Catawba king that the Six Nations were not abiding by the peace treaty. To address this, Glen assured the king that he had dispatched letters to his brother (the governor of New York) and to the Six Nations leadership, imploring them to abide by the terms of the peace treaty.[12]   No such control existed, however. The result would be a war that lasted six decades, and focused primarily on Virginia and not South Carolina, due to the proximity of the colonies to the Shawnee.[13]

The second incident was equally tragic as similar English suspicions and cultural mistakes turned another valuable ally into a foe. Through the early years of the war, the Cherokee, still a loosely associated people, nevertheless proved to be extraordinarily valuable assisting English forces in Ohio. In 1758, four years into the war, the Cherokee appeared in mass at a pivotal time in the Ohio Valley. For two years the British and Ohio Indians had negotiated peace, but once the Cherokee force arrived, with rumors that they intended to kill all the Delaware in the region, the impasse started to break.[14] Although the discussions lasted several months more, the Cherokee presence helped shield the British while they continued to fight the French. Eventually, the historic Treaty of Easton was signed, in large part thanks to the environment created by the Cherokee.[15] However, the ability for Virginia, who the Cherokee supported in Ohio, to maintain friendship with gifts was soon strained. Feeling robbed of expected reward, tensions started to rise as some Indians raided Virginian settlements.[16] This began a series of killings and revenge killings between the settlers and the Cherokee.[17] In 1759, the Governor of South Carolina, who had entered into the dispute, effectively arrested two peace delegations. This action violated Native American expectations of diplomacy, and also aroused suspicions of Southern slavery intentions, as the southern plantation system had started to spread.[18] Once more, although the Governor thought his actions justifiable, the insult and disregard for Indian cultural sensitivities would have major consequences. The Anglo-Cherokee war would last from 1759 – 1761, in the midst of the war with the French.

[1] Matthew C. Ward, “’Old Women’” Indian Strategy on the Virginia and Pennsylvania Frontier, 1754 – 1758,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 103, No. 3 (Jul., 1995), 298.

[2] Ibid, 300-301.

[3] Ibid.

[4] David L. Preston, The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667-1783 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 148 -149.

[5] Matthew C. Ward, ibid, 312.

[6] Ibid, 298.

[7] Thomas Mante, The History of the Late War in North America and the Islands of the West Indies including the Campaigns of MDCCLXIII and MDCCLXIV against His Majesty’s Indian Enemies (London: Printed for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1772), 118.

[8] Daniel P. Barr, “Victory at Kittanning? Reevaluating the Impact of Armstrong’s Raid on the Seven Years’ War

in Pennsylvania,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 131, No. 1 (Jan., 2007), 5 – 6.

[9] David L. Preston, ibid, 149.

[10] Ian Steel, “Shawnee Origins of Their Seven Years’ War,” Ethnohistory, Vol. 53, No. 4 (Fall, 2006), 662

[11] Ibid, 665-668.

[12] Speech of James Glen, Governor of South Carolina, to the Hagler king of the Catawbas, in The Papers of Sir William Johnson (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1921), 386 – 388.

[13] Ibid, 671.

[14] Paul Kelton, “The British and Indian War: Cherokee Power and the Fate of Empire in North America,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 69, No. 4 (October 2012), 780.

[15] Ibid, 786.

[16] Tyler Boulware, ibid, 409.

[17] Ibid, 409-410.

[18] Ibid, 413-414.

“12000 strong…they intend to seize the capitol” – the pitfalls of human intelligence, 11 April 1861

Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Plan to seize Washington) (Library of Congress)
Unknown to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, April 11, 1861 (Plan to seize Washington) (Library of Congress)

In early April, 1861, the possibility of civil war was growing by the day. Seven southern states had already seceded, and tensions in Baltimore and Virginia were poised to make things even worse (the attack on Fort Sumter would commence on 12 April). Intelligence gathering was a lost art, and insurrection outside the gates of Washington was of utmost concern to the new president. Scarcely a month following his inauguration in March, a poorly written intelligence warning was sent to President Lincoln:

“Baltimore April 11. 1861 “Dear Friend I take this metod of informing you that you better prepair yourself for an asailing mob that is organizing in Baltimore as far as i can inform myself is about 12000 m. strong they intend to seize the capitol and yourself and as they say that they will tar & put cotton on your head and ride you and Gen Scot on a rail this secret organation is about 70000 m members in Maryland and Virginia and thay can be all brought to gether in five days, the person that rits this was a member and is bound by a strong oath which if they now ho i was i wold not be suffer to live but justis to you and my country make me do this”

There’s no record (that I am aware of) that Lincoln reacted to (or even read) this letter. Clearly, no such force attempted to seize Washington, but such intelligence certainly contributed to the mounting wariness of a possible attack. A week later (19 April), US soldiers did clash with a mob in Baltimore, but this was hardly an organized attempt to overthrow the government. Rather, southern-sympathizers were outraged that Union troops were passing through their city, and tensions ultimately exploded into a riot. Also of note, on 1 July, the Union army, by order of Winfield Scott, arrested Baltimore’s chief of police and the city’s police commissioners in order to “carry consternation into the ranks of our numerous enemies about you [General Nathaniel Banks].” This dramatic move was based on the recent discovery of supposed secret armories, and the suspect allegiance of certain key members of Baltimore’s civilian leadership.

Ascertaining the credibility of intelligence is always a tricky endeavor. However, making matters worse for Lincoln (and the forming Confederacy, for that matter), was that there was no institutional intelligence capability to help provide such guidance. Intelligence capabilities (and the skills needed to use them) were as lacking as the general military readiness of the North and the South – and probably more so. The consequences of this were many. Among them was a hyper-sensitivity to possible threats to Washington, as Lincoln and Scott demanded significant forces be always held back to protect the city, which at times frustrated generals who felt they had better use of the army. But such weakness in the Union’s intelligence apparatus arguably contributed to the early defeat of Union forces at Bull Run, as military leaders  – scarcely more competent in intelligence operations – were largely left to their own devices and cunning to collect and assess intelligence.