One of the best things about being a Civil War historian is having a couple beers and refighting the Civil War. What follows is a rough translation of a conversation Dan Davis and I had on Oct. 31 as we sat at the bar at the Capital Ale House in downtown Fredericksburg.
“If Meade had been captured at Myers Hill, who would have taken over for him?” I asked.
I was referring to May 14, 1864, as the battle of Spotsylvania shifted toward Grant’s left and the Fredericksburg Road. Leading a special assault force, newly minted Brig. Gen. Emory Upton drove a small band of Confederates from the top of the hill, denying it to the Southerners as an artillery position. Confederates counterattacked, and as they swept down the hill, they nearly nabbed Meade, who’d come to that sector to inspect the newly acquired ground.
Dan and I, longtime armchair veterans of Spotsylvania, knew the episode well and decided it needed our fullest consideration.
“Not Warren,” Dan said.
By that point in the campaign, Warren was already in Grant’s doghouse. On May 10, Grant had even given permission to Meade to relieve Warren if Warren didn’t obey orders fast enough—ironic, since Warren had once been the “golden child” of the army and had been bandied about as a replacement for Meade should Grant ever can the Army of the Potomac commander. However, his star had fallen considerably since the start of the campaign.
“If it had happened in the Wilderness, maybe Warren,” I suggested. “But no way by the 14th.”
“Hancock,” Dan declared. “He’s Grant’s go-to guy.”
“Certainly by the end of the campaign. You think Grant sees him that way already?” That is, by May 14?
“I think so.”
“So take Hancock’s aggressiveness and apply it on the corps level . . . ” I mused. “Then who takes over at corps command?”
“Gibbon,” Dan replied.
“Is he senior? What about Birney?”
Dan thought about it for a moment. Hancock has three good choices: John Gibbon, David Bell Birney, and Francis Barlow. Gibbon and Birney are both great division commanders, and Barlow’s none too shabby, either, although we know he’s not senior enough. Neither of us knows the dates of commission for either Gibbon or Birney. The internet would know; so would Kris White. But we’re two beers into this conversation already and we don’t want to ruin the momentum. (Dan would check later and discover Birney was senior to Gibbon by less than three months.)
Dan mulled it over more. Gibbon eventually gets a corps, although it’s not until later in the war and not until Andrew Humphreys gets the II Corps after Hancock’s departure in November, prompted by his old Gettysburg wound. By then, Hancock’s other original division commanders were gone—Birney transferred out (and then died) and Barlow left on sick leave—and a slighted Gibbon was appeased only by transfer to a new corps command in the Army of the James.
“Who gets the V Corps when Warren gets canned?” I asked, thinking it was Gibbon.
“Griffin,” Dan said, referring to Charles Griffin, the grizzled career officer that had served so well in the V Corps and had helped open the ball at Saunders Field in the Wilderness.
“That’s right,” I responded in a way that could’ve been a Homer Simpsonesque “D’oh!” I can’t be the only person who keeps getting Gibbon and Griffin confused, am I? I wonder. Probably.
“So if Hancock takes over the Army of the Potomac,” I asked, “you don’t think that wastes his talents, taking him too far away from the action?”
Dan tiled his head in consideration. “You still have good fighting instincts at the corps level if Gibbon takes over the II Corps,” he finally said.
We did a quick survey of the other corps commanders just to be sure Hancock’s the answer. Sedgwick is most senior, so he’d have been next in line, seniority-wise, but he’s dead on the 9th. His replacement, Wright, is too junior to step up to army command.
“You know what,” I suggested, “Burnside was actually senior to Meade. He could’ve done it. And he’d have probably been the best choice, temperamentally, too.”
Dan raises his eyebrows.
“If you think about the way Grant actually ran the army—so ‘hands on.’ Meade chafed under that. Burnside would’ve been much more apt to just suck it up and take it.”
“There’s no way he’s coming back to the Army of the Potomac, though,” Dan says. At that point, Burnside was serving as an independent command. He wouldn’t get folded into the AoP’s command structure for another week—a move Burnside sucked up and took. In fact, he went so far as to call his de facto demotion “a military necessity.”
“Imagine what that would do to the Army of the Potomac,” Dan continued. “What it would do for morale. After Fredericksburg, to have him come back? I think Lincoln’s entire cabinet would’ve freaked out.”
“And Burnside wouldn’t have wanted any part of it, anyway. That whole experience with the Army of the Potomac left a bad taste in his mouth. So, it’s got to be Hancock.”
“But I wonder . . . ” Dan said. “Considering that he eventually has to step down because his Gettysburg wound, I wonder how much of that is bothering him on May 14. And how much of a problem that would be if he was army commander.”
“But who else does Grant have, really?”
I took a drink. Dan did too.
“Humphreys?” I tossed out in answer to my own question.
“He does get a corps later.”
“But maybe he has to stay on as chief of staff to help give someone like Hancock continuity when he takes over.”
“I guess that would go back to the relationship between Hancock and Humphreys, but I don’t really know what that was. I don’t remember reading anything about that,” Dan said. “I do think about the ill effects of a hostile chief of staff—I guess it’s fair to characterize Butterfield that way when Meade first took over.”
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “Butterfield threw Meade under the bus.”
“But Meade was close with Humphreys. And with Hancock.”
“So they had to have known each other.”
“I have to imagine it was cordial between them.”
“He doesn’t have anyone else.”
Fortunately for Grant, for the Army of the Potomac, and for Meade, Meade did not get captured on May 14, 1864. Instead, he and his staff forded the Ni River and rode through the brush, capturing in turn a Confederate officer who tried to capture them. “Quite an excitement was caused at headquarters by the incident,” a correspondent reported.
With his dander up, Meade retaliated by ordering Myers Hill retaken—mobilizing the V and VI Corps to do it. What began as a brigade-level dust-up escalated dramatically, and Federals recaptured—and kept—the hill for the remainder of their time at Spotsylvania.