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Monday, August 23, 2010

Ride’n for the Brand

The last couple of posts have been about the Civil War so let’s jump forward just a bit to the American west. There is a term used by western men which I believe is becoming a lost ideal in the world. When a western man said he was riding for the brand it meant something. But what does this truly mean?

The brand was the cattle outfit or ranch a man worked at. At its most basic level, the brand was a marking placed on cattle to identify the owner during the free range days of the westward expansion. Brands such as the Rocking K, B-Bar, and Running S were used as markers for the various ranches. But, in reality, the brand meant much more. It represented the men who worked the cattle and a code of honor.

To say you rode for the brand meant you supported it through thick and thin. You worked hard days and long nights, fought weather outlaws, and Indians. If a cow hand or the ranch came into trouble, the men who rode for the brand came to the defense. A pity to the man who went after a Flying T hand because when he turned around he was facing all the hands of the T. Just like a family, the hands might fight among themselves but would defend the ranch and each other to the end. You could also count on the men of the brand to help and protect your family when you were not around.

Today, we still have brands although we often don’t recognize them. Your brand may be your family name, or an organization you support. It is also may be your job. A man who stands behind the brand will not do things to damage the place he works or his family or jump ship to another firm doing the same thing for personal gain. What ever your choice is, when the brand is attacked you jump to its defense.

This is not true for all people. Some are weak of constitution and have no honor. These poor souls who shrink from a fight for self preservation or fear of standing alone have no place among men. What these folks must realize is that when you stand with the brand, you are never alone. I know that whenever trouble starts all the riders will come running. To choose to ride for the brand is tough. It is never the easy path but the rewards can be more than you hoped.

The next time someone asks you where you stand, tell them you “Ride for the Brand”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

“Now boys, this aint a Christian way to fight a war!”

As I study history, the part which really makes it come alive for me are the stories behind the stories. Everyone knows what Gettysburg is, but how many people know who Jenny Wade is? Most know Yorktown was where George Washington finally defeated the English but who were the heroes who took the outlying redoubts? It is the little vignettes which tell the whole story.

As my partner in crime and I were researching for an upcoming project, I ran across an account of an ambush which took place in the rugged mountains of the Kentucky/Tennessee boarder. This event includes troops, Indians, and scalping. Sounds like a John Wayne movie right? Well it is an actual event. Trying to adhere to good research principals, I verified this story through a couple of primary sources before I would completely believe it. As we sometimes find out, the truth is stranger than fiction.

On September 12, 1862, two companies of the 33rd Indiana were dispatched from Cumberland Gap to Bishop Gap. Marching west through the Appalachian Mountains, some of the roughest country this side of the Rockies, the Indiana troops moved into the mountain pass arriving on the evening of the 12th. The Troops were ordered to block the pass to keep the Rebel troops from flanking the Cumberland Gap.

On 8 September 1862, Major J.P. McCown informed General Samuel Cooper in Richmond that the federals were attempting to flank the Confederate positions in front of the Cumberland Gap and cut their communications with Big Creek Gap.[1] To counter this, McCown ordered “every available man to that point and to Rogers Gap”[2]. This jumbled force of partisan rangers included several companies of the 69th North Carolina, also known as Thomas’s Legion, were ordered into Powell Valley between Jacksboro Tennessee and the Cumberland Gap.

The 69th was organized in the mountains of North Carolina. It was made up principally of white troops but it included 2 companies of Cherokee Indians. Its founder, William Holland Thomas was an advocate for the rights of the Cherokee people and the only white man to become the Chief of the Oconaluftee Indians. He remains the only white man to ever hold this high office.

On September 13, 1862, one of the Cherokee companies was crossing back to Powell Valley through Bishop Gap (located west of the Cumberland Gap). A company of the 33rd Indiana lay in ambush and opened fire at close range. After two days of skirmishing, on September 15, 1862, 1st Lt. William Terrell Ordered the Cherokee company to assault the Federal position. The first Confederate to be felled was none other than the grandson of the Cherokee Chief Junaluska. 2nd Lt. Astoogatogeh was well liked among his fellow Cherokee’s his death struck a chord in them. Instead of the death causing the attack to fall apart in disarray, it brought up a blood lust from the days of their ancestors. [3]

Before they could be stopped, the Cherokee attacked the Federals. In fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Cherokee’s routed the company from the 33rd Indiana. As the Union troops retreated, the Cherokee began to scalp the wounded. It is said the cries could be heard for many miles. If you think about it, the 33rd never had a chance once the Indians closed within 21 feet. This is what modern law enforcement calls the deadly force distance for a man with a knife. Within 21 feet, the attacker can stab you before you can react. The 33rd was up against the finest light infantry and skirmishers in the world. In hand-to-hand combat there were no equal to the Indian.

On returning to the headquarters of General Stevenson, the Confederate division commander before Cumberland Gap, they presented him the scalps. Stevenson took the scalps and even paid them a bounty for them. Once the transaction was finished, he is reportedly to have lectured them not to take scalps as” this was a Christian War!”. It is reported however the scalps were returned to the 33rd to be buried with their dead.

This would not be the last instance of the Cherokee of the 69th scalping federal troops.


Huptman, Laurence M. Between Two Fires: The American Indian in the Civil War. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995.

McKnight, Brian D. Contested Borderland. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

[1] Brian D. McKnight, Contested Borderland (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 85.
[2] Brian D. McKnight, Contested Borderland (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 85.
[3] Laurence M. Huptman, Between Two Fires: The American Indian in the Civil War (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1995), 113-114.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Three Years of Disappointment: How Lincoln failed the Army of the Potomac

Any student of the American Civil War will be well acquainted with the dismal record of the Army of the Potomac from 1861 to mid 1863. Throughout this time period, the army was beset by defeat and a constant stream of new lackluster and border line incompetent commanders. One has to question how the most powerful army the United States had yet fielded could be defeated at every turn by a force with half their strength and a quarter of their resources. While many focus on the ineptitude of the commanders, the blame for the failure falls squarely on Lincoln. After examination of various sources it appears the principal reason for the failure of the Army of the Potomac was President Lincoln’s poor choices for overall command.

At the outbreak of hostilities President Lincoln had as the head of the army General Winfield Scott, a man who was in his seventies and unfit to take the field for any extended period of time. Lincoln therefore was forced to rely on the recommendations of others to choose the field commander for the persecution of the war. The fallacy of this decision is derived from the type of man he chose to serve in the role of Commanding General in the field. While virtually all the senior officers in both armies had served in the War with Mexico, the men chosen by Lincoln to command the Army of the Potomac up through 1863 had virtually no experience actually leading troops in the field. When reviewing their service records one sees that McDowell, McClellan, Hooker, and Mead served in staff positions within General Zachery Taylors force but other than being on the field during a battle they had virtually no experienced actually leading men.[1] None of these officers served as company, regimental, brigade, or division officers in the regular army. Additionally, After the Mexican War, all of the initial commanders of the Army of the Potomac worked in engineering or teaching positions. They all had extensive experience with administrative and educational tasks but no troop leading experience. As the say – those who can’t, teach!!

Contrast this with both the command staff of the Army of Northern Virginia and the western Federal officers who would eventually win the war. In the Army of Northern Virginia, both Longstreet and Jackson served as line officers actually leading men in combat. In fact, Longstreet was wounded carrying the regimental colors up the ramparts of Chapultepec. Robert E. Lee E., although attached to Taylor’s staff, was in charge of positioning both troops and batteries prior to and during actions. As for the Federal officers, Grant, Sherman, and Thomas actually led troops in combat during the various actions of the Mexican War.

The reason this difference in experience becomes an issue is the men Lincoln chosen to lead the Army of the Potomac up until Grant have vast experience with logistics and organizing an army but little in fighting a battle. Some, such as Burnside and McClellan, actually had more experience running railroads than actually commanding troops in the field. The battlefield is a dynamic environment which requires the unit commander to be able to think on his feet and react to the changing situation. The most glaring example of the ability to organize well but being unable or unwilling to make battlefield decisions is George McClellan. While no one can deny the McClellan’s reorganization of the Army the Potomac was critical to its eventual success, his anxiety about the unknowns of committing troops to battle handicapped him[2]. Indeed, I would speculate that McClellan suffered from a mental disorder (but I will save that for another post)

There were several other factors that affected Lincoln’s choices for field command. One of the greatest mistakes Lincoln made with his field commanders, with the exception of George McClellan (who should have been fired within days due to his complete lack or respect for the Office of Commander and Chief), was his tendency to relieve them of command following a single engagement such as McDowell after first Bull Run, Burnside after Fredericksburg (although the army was in mutiny when he suggested trying to cross the Rappahannock again), and Hooker after Chancellorsville. The constant turnover in the command of the army destroyed any continuity. While brigade, division and corps commanders typically remained in their positions, the constant stream of new overall commanders did not allow for the development of any one central strategy. It should be noted however, many of these decisions were forced upon Lincoln by the political pressure being applied not only by Congress but by the State’s as well.

An additional problem that would plague Lincoln in the early part of the war was one of political appointees. Many field grade officers were forced upon Lincoln by State Governments. These appointees were not necessarily the most qualified for command. With these appointees often came the different vision of the purpose of the war. Many of the field grade officers in the army of the Potomac in the early part of the war had strong abolitionist ties. It was therefore important to them to captured territory and secure freedom for the slaves with the restoration of the union being a secondary goal.

There is possibly one additional fatal mistake made by Lincoln that is worthy of discussion. That mistake stems from taking a larger role in the daily operations of the army, and not clearly conveying his strategy for the persecution of the war to his field commanders. General Irvin McDowell’s march towards the Manassas Junction in July 1861 was against his better judgment.[3] In many conversations, he informed President Lincoln the Army of the Potomac was not ready to take the field. The troops were green, undisciplined, and unskilled. Once the army suffered catastrophic failure at first Bull Run, Lincoln began to scrutinize and micromanage the operations of the army. This level of intense scrutiny undoubtedly led to the trepidation of commander such as Hooker and Mead, and the disastrous dynamic action of Burnside at Fredericksburg. It is not until Grant takes over that Lincoln finds a General who shares his vision of the persecution of the war and is independent enough that Lincoln does not feel the need to apply the personal touch.

For the first three years of the war the Federal army in the east was beset with failure. While it is easy to point out the shortcomings of various field commanders, the real blame for the failure of the army ultimately lies with Lincoln. The poor choices made by Lincoln for overall field command haunted him until Grant came east. While it should be noted that Lincoln acted on the advice of others, he should have made sure the Officers were fully vetted and conducted a full review of their service records. For a General to be effective in the field he must have more than academic or staff credentials. He must be able to lead troops and adapt to the changing situation on the battlefield.

Detzer, David. DonnyBrook: The Battle of First Bull Run, 1861. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2004.

Sears, Stephen W. WIth My Face To the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War. Edited by Robert Cowley. New York: The Birkley Publishing Group, 2001.

Unknown. "Mexican War Generals." Sons Of The South, 2003. (accessed July 30, 2010).

[1] Unknown, "Mexican War Generals," Sons of the South, 2003, (Accessed July 30, 2010).
[2] According to Sears, McClellan completely lost his nerve before the battle of Malvern Hill. He left the field and virtually abdicated the command of the army. He was 30 miles away checking on new fall back positions preparing to completely abandon the Peninsula. As cited in Stephen W. Sears, WIth My Face To the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War, ed. Robert Cowley (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2001), 124.
[3] David Detzer, DonnyBrook: The Battle of First Bull Run, 1861 (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2004), 84-89.