A Vermonter Plays “Arm Chair General”

Wilber Fisk

In the early spring of 1864, Wilbur Fisk of the 2nd Vermont Regiment penned a letter for a local newspaper in his homestate, offering his views on what to do…if he controlled the war. A long time correspondent for publication, Fisk gave his readers relatively open views of a Union soldier’s experience in the Army of the Potomac. Sometimes, he included patriotic or political sentiments which both reflected his beliefs and may have also sought to influence the homefront.

While many veterans played “arm chair general” after the Civil War – often trying to sort out or justify actions in tactics and strategy – Fisk’s letter offers some theoretical strategy from a soldier in the ranks during the war. As you’ll see, he was about 50% correct on how the 1864 campaigns would go. But he wasn’t the president or a general so no one was asking his advice…

(I have added paragraphs for ease of internet reading.)

Near Brandy Station, Va.

Mar. 14, 1864

The army of the Potomac has not moved yet, but if the present weather holds much longer there is a strong probability that we shall be ordered out of our pleasant quarters here into the field of strife once more, and that very soon. It is much less muddy now than two years ago when we left Camp Griffin, and all the facilities for moving are much better now than they were then. But, at this time of year, the weather cannot be trusted. A long rainstorm would spoil the traveling completely at anytime. There is one indication of a move in the army, the women are all ordered away, though this may only be precautionary, as a forward movement is liable to take place at any time.

What direction is to be taken when we do move, and what we are expected to accomplish is only conjecture. We hope some kind of move will be inaugurated that will promise better success than any we have started heretofore. Going to Richmond, and by this route, has been proved a task beyond our ability times enough to satisfy any reasonable mind that our strength and energy had better be expended in some other direction than in assailing the rebel works directly in front.

If I was only the President of the United States, I would have all the armies clear around Secessia hammering away at them at once, so that the rebel armies in each quarter would have business of their own to attend to, and this would stop their reinforcing from one point to another. Longstreet should find permanent employment, either here or at Knoxville, and should not be allowed to frighten both this army and that one at the same time. While the army of the Cumberland and Tennessee was thundering away at the rebels opposed to them, I should have the Potomac army flank Richmond by the way of Charlottesville and Lynchburg, thus destroying the communications with the rebel capital on the Virginia Central, and the Virginia Tennessee railroads.

Lee’s army would then find itself in a dangerous predicament, and perhaps be obliged to come out and fight us on grounds of our own choosing. Their formidable works along the Rapidan and the Rappahannock would not protect their precious heads, nor should we be obliged to cross any Mine Runs, or any place of that sort, in order to get a chance to fight these national villains. We should have a fair open field fight, and that is all that we want. If we can’t whip them then, we may as well acknowledge their Confederacy at once and go home, call ourselves whipped, and make the best of it we can.

But such a disaster could not happen. We should succeed if the business was only managed right. There could be no doubt about it. We should scatter the rebel armies to the four winds, conquer a peace, and be at home in season to hoe our potatoes, and celebrate the Fourth of July. But I am not the President, my friends, and I am afraid this war will linger along in the same blundering way hereafter as heretofore; and that your patience is doomed to be tortured for a long time to come, as it has been for a long time past….


Wilbur Fisk, edited by Emil and Ruth Rosenblatt, Hard Marching Every Day: The Civil War Letters of Private Wilbur Fisk, 1861-1865 (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Press, 1983). Pages 198-199.

2 Responses to A Vermonter Plays “Arm Chair General”

  1. Comments about the Bandy Station to Charlottesville to Lynchburg to Richmond idea. Looks like he didn’t know about the requirement to protect Washington DC at all times, or maybe he felt, unlike the populace thereof, that DC could protect itself. I don’t know the geography of getting to Charlottesville and then to Lynchburg but it seems mountainous with fewer options to maneuver and more options to get blocked by a smaller force. But it may be said that taking on Richmond thru Lynchburg would have gotten them to Appomattox sooner . His regiment had five Medal of Honor winners, per Wikipedia, four of them were after he wrote that. Thank you for a great article about the viewpoint as seen from in the weeds, my hometown.

  2. Wow, this was quite a find … thanks a bunch for showcasing this a wonderfully well-spoken and smart Vermonter … he got the big strategy part exactly right … attack the Confederacy at many places all at once to offset their interior lines of communication and exploit the United States superior numbers … which is exactly what Grant did … thanks again.

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