Question of the Week: 8/7-8/13/17

At the 2017 Emerging Civil War Symposium’s last weekend, the theme was “Great Defenses of the Civil War.” Which defense would you nominate as the greatest of the Civil War? Why?

26 Responses to Question of the Week: 8/7-8/13/17

  1. I may be partial but I would say Fredericksburg. Lee’s use of the heights and surrounding terrain obliterated the Union advance.

    – Michael Aubrecht

    1. During the Q&A, someone asked if there were any great defenses that backfired on the defenders or trapped them in some way. I suggested Fredericksburg was one such defense. It worked well for Lee’s army when Federals attacked, but Lee couldn’t do anything to take advantage of his victory and mount a counteroffensive of his own because his army would’ve fallen prey to the same features that had served as advantages to him when on the defense: open terrain and dominating heights for artillery. Lee felt deeply frustrated by his win at Fredericksburg because he gained no material advantages at a time when he was keenly looking to deliver a crushing blow.

      1. Chris: The other thing that gets lost (and you know this well as the co-author of the nicely-done Simply Murder) is that the Marye’s Heights defense could have been a side show had it not inadvertently become the main target following the Federals’ near-miss on the Confederate right. The defense over on that side was hardly a work of art, including the inexcusable gap in the front.

  2. My choice would be Beauregard’s defense of Petersburg against Butler and then Grant. It is amazing what he did with so few men and how it prolonged the war.

    1. Charlie: I think your second (June 15-18) is a solid choice. The first (June 9) needs an asterisk. Beauregard indeed had a small, cobbled-together force but it should have been crushed aside. His success was due in very large part to “it was Butler, Gilmore, and Kautz, after all”.

      1. I would exonerate both Butler and Kautz, putting all the blame on Gilmore. Kautz actually penetrated the Dimmock Line, albeit against token opposition that held longer than should have been the case. Butler had told Gilmore that 1,000 casualties would not be too high a price to pay for destroying the bridges; Federal casualties were 52, almost all from Kautz. Gilmore’s infantry column did virtually nothing but look at the earthworks for a couple of hours and then withdraw. It was three companies of the 46th Virginia that stopped Kautz just outside of town; Wise had been able to detach this force only because Gilmore had withdrawn.

      2. Jim: I think Gilmore bears the brunt but Butler knew what he was working with and failed to exercise appropriate control IMHO. There’s also the notion that this attack was made at least in part because Butler needed to salvage his poorly-managed campaign and knew he was about to lose independent status with Grant crossing the James. Bad reasons often result in bad decisions.

  3. Enjoyed watching the symposium on C-SPAN. I would nominate Buford at Gettysburg. His actions did much to influence the layout of the battleground, that would eventually frustrate and deny the Confederates victory. Also, enjoyed the story about the dedication of his statue and the cannons surrounding it.

  4. Buford’s work at Gettysburg has always stood out to me. The fact that his smaller force deprived the Confederate infantry from getting to the heights south of Gettysburg, and more that it meant that the federals could use the defensive position for the next two days of battle may well have turned the course of the war.

  5. I will name three, all Union, in order of time and importance:

    1. Benjamin Prentiss’s defense of the Union center at Shiloh. With Grant’s left and right wings collapsing, if Prentiss had not held the center (“at all hazards”), A. S. Johnston and Beauregard would have pushed Grant into the river and, in that case, Wallace’s and Buell’s reinforcements the following morning would have counted for nothing. Had this happened, Grant would have been sacked (as it was, he was demoted) and the entire war would thus have been very different.
    2. Warren’s and Chamberlain’s defense of Little Round Top (called “the Rocky Mount” at the time), against Hood’s shock troops, and Hancock’s defense of Cemetery Ridge the following day, against Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble. If Hood’s men had taken the Round Top, the entire Union fishhook defense would have been blasted away by Confederate guns from the high ground and the victory would have gone to the Confederacy. If the Charge on the third day had succeeded in crushing the Union center, the victory would also have gone to the Confederacy. In either case, the military and political consequences would have been enormous, including the real possibility of British intervention.
    3. Thomas’s defense at Snodgrass Hill. Had he not been successful, Rosecrans would not have had an army to retreat to Chattanooga; his entire army would have been routed and crushed, with serious, though not necessarily fatal, consequences for the Union war effort following Chickamauga.

    1. John: Regarding “1”, Tim Smith and some others have pretty much debunked the Hornets Nest legend which can mostly be traced to post-war spin by some of the Union participants (including prominently Prentiss himself and David Reed). Among other things, most of the troops there were under W.H.L. Wallace, not Prentiss, and Prentiss’s tactics also have been questioned. In fact, the Park Service now officially takes the position that the Hornet’s Nest did not play the critical role in the Union defense on April 6. If you’re interested Tim has written a few excellent books dealing with the battle, including the most recent (and best) battle study.

  6. So many to choose from…but the one that stands out in my mind is the Prentiss defense of the Hornets Nest at Shiloh. As John F. Points out so well above, without that stand, both Grant and Sherman may not have been around for the important roles they eventually played in the rest of the war.

  7. John Foskett:

    Thanks, John. I will look into the matter in greater detail, including reference to Tim’s works. If I am wrong, it will not be the first time, and I will be the first to acknowledge it.


  8. John Foskett:

    Thank you again, this time for the NPS material, which I read immediately. You caught me right in the middle of some other reading on the subject. I confess to getting a lump in my throat when I read of the death of General W. H. L. Wallace (said to have been very highly regarded by Grant), in his wife’s arms three days after his wounding, and his last words to her: “We meet in heaven”. Pending further reading and thought, I am disinclined to reject tradition too easily. It seems to me quite reasonable that most of the dead were found on the left and right wings inasmuch as most of the initial fighting occurred there, which is why they were collapsing. The fighting in the center, then, occurred with intensity only after the carnage on the wings and presumably resulted in fewer dead because most of the combatants were left and right of it, many of them dead or wounded, As I said: pending further research.


    1. I do strongly recommend Tim’s battle history. In addition to being the product of much time spent patrolling the battlefield and in the archives, it is up to date and, unlike earlier histories, emphasizes terrain and covers the second day in detail. He’s also done a nice book on the history of the park, legends, etc.

  9. The Union defense at Franklin. The strong defensive line set up by Jacob Cox had a wide gap in the middle to allow the wagon train and troops to withdraw. Cox had wisely set up a second line just in case, and it became essential when Hood attacked and drove Wagner’s advance men into the line. The furious melee in the center was a significant test, and Cox, Emerson Opdycke, and numerous others met the challenge, hurling the Confederates back. They re-formed the line and met Hood’s continued attacks long into the night.

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