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John Gibbon and Strategy

Posted November 5th, 2016 at 07:57 PM by Viperlord

John Gibbon, a North Carolinian West Pointer who remained loyal to the Union and very ably led troops throughout the war, is one of my favorite figures of the American Civil War. He is not someone I ever talk about in relation to strategy, because he spent most of the war as a division commander, briefly attaining corps command at the end, and early on of course, forging and leading the famed Iron Brigade. Consequently, I was pleased to come across a campaign plan proposed by none other than John Gibbon, in a letter to Burnside* while the Union army was before Fredericksburg waiting for its pontoons.

*So I presume, as the document was actually in Burnside's papers before getting added to the Official Records


BROOKE'S STATION, VA., November 30, 1862.

It is now pretty well established that the main body of rebels is in position around Fredericksburg, engaged in throwing up breastworks, and intend to dispute the passage of the Rappahannock.

The original intention on our part, in changing our line of operations, was, undoubtedly, to surprise a passage of the river, and at least get a position on the other side before the rebels could be apprised of our intentions, and get down there from Culpeper, and then to push on to Hanover Junction, on our way to Richmond, cutting their line of retreat, interrupting their supplies and re-enforcements, and perhaps fighting one great battle.

On our arrival here, no means of crossing in force were at hand; the surprise failed, and the railroad being out of order, we were obliged to wait for supplies and the bridge train the enemy, apprised of our movement, was enabled to throw his whole army around Fredericksburg.

By the time we can get up supplies sufficient to start for Richmond, a comparatively small force will be enabled to dispute successfully the passage of the river to a very large one.

Suppose we succeed in forcing the passage. The character of the roads is well known, and a single hard rain will put them in such a condition that our weak teams will not be able even to drag our artillery, to say nothing of our supplies, which have first to be brought over 12 miles of railroad, the protection of which will require a large force.

It will take at least three weeks to repair the bridge over the Rappahannock, and then it will be carried away by the first heavy rain. It was destroyed three times last summer by floods.

By the time we are able to leave the vicinity of Fredericksburg, we are in the middle of winter, and in a climate where we cannot depend upon frozen ground as a means of carrying along our artillery and wagons.

The enemy can take up a position where their batteries will be comparatively stationary, while ours must be moved along and worked in the mud. He will, of course, tear up the track, and when we repair it, every foot must be well protected or he will make raids upon it and destroy it. This will require a very large portion of our force.

The distance from Fredericksburg to Richmond is 60 miles, so that we have 72 miles of road to guard against the enemy and the weather. At any other season we need not take Fredericksburg, but could fall down to Rappahannock Court-House, or below, cross under fire of the gunboats, and march on a shorter line to Richmond; but at this season there would be the difficulty of the roads, and the enemy could move down behind the Mattapony and the Pamunkey, with a railroad to assist him. It is, therefore, impracticable at this season to take Richmond from this point. Can it be taken from any other point?

During the attack on it last summer, the enemy threw large re-enforcements forward from North Carolina and other points farther south by means of the railroad through Petersburg. Get possession of that point, and you not only interrupt his direct communication with the South, stop his troops and supplies, but stand a good chance of cutting his only remaining other southern channel, and the only southerwestern one, by an expedition 50 miles off, at Burke's Station. The force now at Petersburg and its vicinity cannot be large. Make every preparation for crossing the river just below Fredericksburg. Plant your batteries, and build your bridge or get it ready for building, and persuade the enemy, if possible, that you are determined to make the advance on this line. Give it out that the Government at Washington insists upon your moving on this line. The enemy will readily believe it. Assemble a large amount of transportation, and let the Government publish at once its determination to arrest any editor of a papar who publishes any telegram or letter from any of the armies of the east for the next thirty days and suspend the paper.

Push forward the force at Suffolk, increased as much as possible by drafts from Fort Monroe, Norfolk, &c., whilst a large force moves up the James River, landing at some point below City Point, or, if possible, on the Appomattox, under protection of the gunboats. For this force take the whole of Banks' force, and of this, all but a few divisions to be left here to the last, to keep up appearances; if they are attacked, to fall back at once, either on the Potomac or Rappahannock, at some suitable point, where they can be protected by the gunboats placed there for the purpose. If properly managed, the force below Petersburg will be cut off. Once in possession of Petersburg, Richmond will fall. Our army will be almost independent of the bad roads; will have its supplies brought by means of the James River almost directly to its camps. We can invest Fort Darling, carry it by assault, and take Richmond in the rear. Our gunboats and the winter roads would effectually prevent the enemy from advancing on Washington, even if that were not well fortified and defended. If we could read the south side of James River, opposite Richmond, before the enemy could concentrate there, the city must fall. If he got there before us, then the great battle must take place below Richmond, and on the side where it is presumed he has but few fortifications, and between him and his re-enforcements.

Nice to see that Petersburg's importance was recognized early on; George Barnard proposed something very similar right around the same time. Politics of course, meant that the Lincoln administration could not accept a return to the James River line of operations, not for the Army of the Potomac anyway. Gibbon, like many Army of the Potomac officers, had been an admirer of McClellan, and many in the army continued to believe (correctly) that the James was the true line of operations that should be used against Richmond.
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