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Friday, August 07, 2009

THE LOGIC OF WAR



I read all maps with skepticism, and civil war maps provide a good paradigm. In textbooks Pennsylvania is a solid blue union state. But the little town of 1,600, where the Hanover Pike crossed the road from Baltimore (30 miles to the southeast) was also a border town. It lay just five miles north of the Mason Dixon line(above), the official divide between “slave” and “free” states. So at 8 a.m. on the last day of June, 1863, when the 1st and 7th regiments of Michigan volunteer cavalry cantered up the Baltimore Pike, they were unsure of the kind of reception they would receive. A halt was called and their commander, newly promoted General George Armstrong Custer, ordered most the men to dismount and posted sentries on all the roads into town. Meanwhile, the newly appointed Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, commander of the 3rd Cavalry division, greeted the townsfolk and asked for information. He found them pleasant and helpful.So, after a short rest, when the 1st West Virginia cavalry, under General Farnsworth, arrived, Custer and Kilpatrick and the Michigan men remounted and continued on to the northeast, toward the Pigeon Hills and Abbottstown beyond.In their turn the West Virginians were replaced in Hanover by the 5th New York. And about 11 A.M. the newly formed 18th Pennsylvania cavalry regiment limped into Hanover and the New Yorkers, in their turn, began to head toward Abbottstown. Pennsylvanian Captain Henry Potter, commanding 40 men, relieved the New York pickets southwest of Hanover, out on Fredrick road. Their officer informed him of some suspicious men seen lurking at the edge of a nearby wood. When the New Yorkers left, Potter decided to investigate. He and his men advanced down the road to the southwest of Hanover. Three miles later, at a road junction and small farm owned by the Butts family, Potter's command was suddenly cutoff by 60 mounted men in grey appearing behind him. They were members of the 2nd North Carolina cavalry, and their officer demanded that Potter surrender. Instead, Potter ordered his men to draw their pistols and charge. They burst through the startled Rebel line, killing one Confederate trooper and wounding several others. Four of the Pennsylvania men were also killed, but they broke through and raced back toward Hanover. The rebels gave chase.This became a three mile gallop across the countryside, both sides firing wildly. As the pursuit neared Hanover it uncovered the men Potter had left behind. Their seven shot carbines forced the Confederates to pause. But as more of the North Carolina horsemen arrived they swarmed over the federals who retreated back down Fredrick street into town.The center square of Hanover was now jammed with the federal division’s supply train and ambulances, as well as the rear guard of the 5th New York which had yet to leave town. General Farnsworth was to
disentangle the one from the other. But he was overrun by his own retreating men, with the rebels pressing closely behind. Farnsworth's federals were driven out of the town.
Farnsworth quickly reformed his troopers, and was reinforced by more who were countermarching toward the sound of the guns. With the New Yorkers and the Pennslyvania regiment, he launched a dismounted charge back into the town. The federals now swarmed through the narrow side streets and alleys around the square.Now the mounted rebels found themselves engaged in close combat in the narrow side streets of Hanover, where there was little room to swing a saber or manuver a horse. The commander of the Confederate troops had his own horse shot out from under him, was thrown into a vat of dye. He was captured by a New York trooper.The Confederates were forced to withdraw from the town. As more confederates arrived, they formed battle lines on the hills to the south and west of Hanover, while the Federals were in a defensive arc centered on town. Rebel artillery began to lob shells. Battery E of the 4th U.S. Horse Artillery responded.At this point General Kilpatrick arrived back in Hanover, having driven his horse so hard that it immediately broke down and died from exhaustion. He thus lived up to his nickname of General “Kill Cavalry”. Kilpatrick put Custer’s dismounted men to the west of Hanover, and the fair haired Custer began to press toward the Confederate artillery position, forcing the rebels to reinforce that flank and pull their artillery back.And just for a few moments it looked as if a great battle might be fought here, with both sides feeding in men until it became a maw that ground up men by the thousands. But it was not to be. That night the Rebel troopers slipped around the union right flank and headed to the northeast, toward Dover. In the morning Kilpatrick’s horsemen followed the Confederates, to the north and to the east. There was to be no great battle in Hanover.But, that same morning, July 1st, 1863, the 2nd Federal Cavalry division was probing 12 miles due the west of Hanover, and found not Confederate cavalry but infantry, the entire right flank of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And this engagement would grow over the next three days into the climatic struggle of the American Civil War, in and around a small Pennsylvania crossroads town no larger than Hanover but destined to be more famous; Gettysburg.It was an accident of history that Hanover was not the site of the war’s crucial battle: lucky Hanover. It was a combination of human blindness and ambition, and accidents of terrain and of timing that the battle of Hanover produced 28 dead, 123 wounded and 180 missing or captured,... ...while at Gettysburg these same imponderables produced 7,864 dead, 27,224 wounded and 11,199 missing or captured. And that is what is called the logic of war.The first soldier killed at Hanover, out near the Butts farm, was Corporal John Hoffacker. He had served in the 18th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry for all of two months, and he died barely 20 miles from his home. That too is the logic of war.
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