A painstakingly researched history of the Confederate troops under Robert E. Lee presents vivid portraits of soldiers from all walks of life, offers insight into how the Confederacy conducted key operations, and reveals how closely the South came to winning the war. 50,000 first printing.
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Joseph T. Glatthaar received a B.A. from Ohio Wesleyan University, an M.A. in history from Rice University, and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Military Academy, and the University of Houston. He is currently the Stephenson Distinguished Professor of History and chair of the Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Comedy of Errors,
Tragedy of Triumph
Even though James Thomas Petty had resided in Washington, D.C., for years, he always identified himself as a Virginian. When it came time to choose sides in the sectional crisis, Thomas, as his friends called him, had no difficulty. He left the Union for the Confederate States of America just as Virginia did.
Born in 1836 in Falmouth, Virginia, Thomas lived there and in Front Royal, Virginia, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains during his youth. His father, James S. Petty, was a tailor by trade, and not a notably successful one at that. In 1860, at age fifty-three, James Petty owned no land and held personal property worth a meager $150.00. Although he never made much money, James and his wife, Margaret, emphasized schooling for their children. At fourteen, Thomas could have helped to ease the financial woes of the family by seeking employment. Instead, his family scrimped while Thomas secured a superior education, which reaped dividends for the rest of his life.
Avoiding his father's craft and, for that matter, other forms of manual labor, young Thomas gravitated toward the nation's capital in the early 1850s in search of employment. With support from his father's family, he found employment as a clerk, earning decent wages with the promise of economic mobility and financial security. A bright and pleasant lad, about medium height with hazel eyes and dark hair, Thomas carved out a strong network of friends and connections in and around Washington. He socialized broadly, forging relationships with other aspiring young men from modest backgrounds, and with quite a number of single young women.
On January 1, 1861, Petty called on President James Buchanan to offer him a happy New Year. "Poor Old Buck!" he jotted in his diary. "He looks careworn, and the effects of 'Secession' are visible in his countenance." Barely a week earlier, South Carolina had voted to withdraw from the Union, and rumblings from other slave states suggested that more would follow.
Along with other Washingtonians, Petty rejoiced when rumors circulated that Senator John Crittenden's committee had eked out a compromise. It would have overseen the adoption of perpetually binding constitutional amendments that would secure slavery forever and guarantee slavery in territories south of the Missouri Compromise line, 36°, 30'. "A mountain seemd removed from every heart," he exulted. But that, too, quickly unraveled.
Soon, the electricity of the times seized him, as it did hundreds of thousands of others. The thrill of momentous events, the culmination of decades of struggle over the legality and geography of slavery, was so exciting that it clouded his mind to solutions and consequences. "The South," he proclaimed joyously, "is in a blaze." On behalf of the Commonwealth of Virginia, he argued with friends so vociferously that he had to avoid political discussions to preserve his bond with them. When Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor fell to Rebel gunners in mid-April, he erupted with joy. Soon thereafter, when Virginia seceded, he announced his decision: "All my friends nearly condemn me but believing I'm right I still cry hurrah for Old Virginia! Whither she goes I'll follow."
Although neither Petty nor his parents had slaves, many people he knew from days as a youth and an adult did -- his uncle in Front Royal owned a dozen. Slaveholding was a Southern right, and Petty detested "Black Republicans" for their goals of stripping Southerners of their civil liberties as the Constitutional Convention of 1787 had reaffirmed. He took great pride in his standing as "Virginian & a Southerner."
By mid-April, Petty had written his parents to inform them where he stood on the national crisis. A week later, he arrived in Front Royal, determined to enlist in the army. Two of his cousins had already left for Harpers Ferry to serve in the Warren Rifles, and he decided to join them. Before the month was out, Thomas Petty drilled on the green in front of Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, where George Washington and Robert E. Lee had worshiped.
It did not take long before Petty's officers discovered the value of his clerking talents. After a stint as recorder for a court-martial, duty that earned him the praise of the judge advocate, his captain asked him to prepare the company rolls. Soon, the brigade commissary sought his labor, and a struggle for Petty's services ensued that went all the way to the brigade commander, Brig. Gen. James Longstreet. Longstreet directed that Petty should remain with his regiment.
In mid-July, a Union army of 32,000 under Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell marched southward toward the main Confederate body that guarded Manassas Junction, where the Manassas Gap Railroad from Front Royal intersected the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Advanced Rebel units fell back in the face of the large Union column, joining forces with other elements of Brig. Gen. P. G. T. Beauregard's command behind a sluggish, fairly shallow stream with steep banks called Bull Run, about one and a half miles from Manassas Junction.
Petty's regiment, the 17th Virginia Infantry, had only pulled its component companies together in late June. Along with the rest of Longstreet's Brigade, it guarded Blackburn's Ford across Bull Run, on the right of Beauregard's line.
About noon on July 18, the lead column of the Union command approached, placing the entire regiment under fire for the first time. To open the contest, Union artillery hurled projectiles to the left of the brigade. Soon, the fire drifted on top of the 17th. As the soldiers hugged the ground for protection, Federal infantrymen deployed and delivered volleys at the Rebel line. Some soldiers panicked and began withdrawing to the rear. Suddenly, Longstreet rode among them. A large and powerful man who appeared like a giant on horseback, Longstreet's imperturbability amid enemy gunfire reassured the raw troops and restored order. Others held their ground but nervously fidgeted with their firing hammers, itching for a chance to respond in kind. Once Confederates countered with volleys of their own, many of them regained composure. The mere act of defending themselves, and the physical activity of loading and firing, dissipated skittishness among the inexperienced volunteers.
In haste, soldiers loaded and fired, but not in accordance with the procedures officers had taught the men. Perspiration streamed down on the warm day, combining with gunpowder to form a black batter on their faces. Hands, too, took on a charcoal hue from careless pouring of gunpowder into musket barrels. Most men were soon barely recognizable. Hours passed in what appeared to be only seconds. One soldier recalled little of the fight, except his captain parading behind them directing their fire, and his shooting a Yankee some seventy yards out. For that act of killing, he shed no tears of remorse. "Well, I was fighting, for my house, and he had no business there," he wrote.
Three times the Yankees tried to drive off the Rebel defenders, and three times they fought them back. Finally, Rebel volleys suppressed Federal rifle fire enough to allow three companies from the 17th Virginia to rush across Bull Run. Popping up on the Union flank, they delivered withering blasts that forced the attackers into retreat.
Despite some shaky moments, Longstreet's Brigade, and the 17th Virginia Infantry, acquitted themselves well in their first firefight. All told, Longstreet's command suffered seventy casualties while inflicting eighty-three on the attackers. One member of the 17th was killed, with another eighteen wounded. Petty gazed on the corpse of the only fatality, Tom Sangster, of Alexandria. "A triumphant smile rested like a ray of sunshine upon his marble-like features," he commented. At least some of those casualties, Petty complained, were victims of friendly fire. Frightened men shot first and identified targets later. "Just say boo!" grumbled Petty the day after, "& pop goes a gun at whoever is before them."
Petty himself witnessed no action that day. Off on an errand for his regimental commander, he returned after the fighting was done. Chagrined by his own absence, and perhaps a bit embarrassed, Petty extracted a promise from his colonel two days later that he could return to his company for the remainder of the campaign. Next time, he would not miss the fight.
Yet the next time, the true Battle of First Manassas on July 21, was even more embarrassing for Petty. Deployed as skirmishers in advance of the Rebel army, Petty and his captain were nearly captured. While running back to Rebel lines, they both stumbled and fell into Bull Run. As Petty plunged into the water, his musket slipped from his grasp. His body crashed into a rock just below the surface, bruising him badly, and as he rolled away, he knocked his captain back under. Completely saturated, the two struggled with each other and the current to stand once more. Hastily, Petty felt around for his weapon, without success. He was suddenly unarmed and in the midst of the largest battle yet fought on the North American continent. Petty limped back to Confederate trenches to secure another rifled musket. By the time he returned to the company, his captain had realized that Petty's bruise was severe enough to prevent him from moving quickly. He ordered the private back to camp. Petty hobbled off to a commanding hill, and from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., watched the battle from safety. The simultaneous roar of musketry and artillery from both sides must have stunned the green soldier. One eyewitness described it to his father by writing, "It was one continual thunder upon thunder until the Earth seemed to shake its very foundations." By very late afternoon, eruptions of gunfire slowly dissipated, and as darkness settled on the field, Petty returned to the trenches.
For Thomas Petty and many others, the start of the war was a comedy of errors, more slapstick than drama. His story is a useful reminder that any s...
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