Review: A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864

   

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Cross, David F. A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864 (White Mane Books, 2003). 267 pages, photos, maps, notes, bibliography. ISBN: 1-57249-332-1 $29.95 (Hardcover).

A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864On June 23, 1864, the Vermont Brigade of the Army of the Potomac lost over 400 men captured at the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, the brigade’s darkest day and a catastrophic event to loved ones back home.  What happened to these captured men, imprisoned at Andersonville after the battle, was even worse.  In A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864, author David F. Cross walks readers through the circumstances surrounding the capture, chronicles the experiences of the captured men at Andersonville and in escape attempts, and assesses responsibility for the disaster among key players in the Union Army.

Author David F. Cross is a retired physician living in Rutland, VT.  He has had numerous articles published on medical and American history topics.  More important to the topic of this book, Cross has studied the “melancholy affair” between the Jerusalem Plank Road and the Weldon Railroad for more than a decade.  Cross maintains a website on the Vermont Brigade’s actions on June 23, 1864. He is also a founding member of the Green Mountain Civil War Roundtable.

After the Battle of Petersburg from June 15-18, 1864, Grant decided to sidle left and attempt to closely invest the city of Petersburg from east to west, with the best case scenario being a full encirclement where both Union flanks rested on the Appomattox River.  The Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road, Grant’s Second Offensive against Petersburg, lasted from June 21-24, 1864.  Rather than the best case scenario, two Union Corps suffered embarrassing setbacks on consecutive days.  The vaunted Union Second Corps suffered thousands of captured on June 22 with the Vermont Brigade of the Sixth Corps losing over 400 captured on June 23.  The latter fiasco is the focus of A Melancholy Affair.

Lewis A. Grant’s Vermont Brigade was a part of Getty’s Division (commanded temporarily by Frank Wheaton on June 23), Sixth Corps (commanded by Horatio Wright), Army of the Potomac (commanded by George G. Meade).  The Vermonters were on the left center of the Sixth Corps line west of the Jerusalem Plank Road and facing west toward the Weldon Railroad.  The Sixth Corps was supposed to keep contact with the Second Corps to its right while also advancing toward the Weldon Railroad.  Horatio Wright proved to be very timid, only sending out skirmishers from his various divisions.  The skirmishers from the Vermont Brigade consisted of portions of the 3rd, Vermont, 4th Vermont and the 11th Vermont (1st Heavy Artillery).  Ultimately the latter two units had large numbers of men on picket in an unsupported position with both flanks in the air.  This allowed the Confederate force under Confederate General William Mahone to slide behind the Vermonters, cutting off over 400 men, the majority of which were sent to Andersonville, the notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp in Georgia.  This was a completely preventable fiasco.  The main line could not see their skirmishers due a small rise in the ground in their front, and had either the skirmishers been pulled back to this rise or the main body moved forward, many men would have been saved.

Cross does an excellent job making sense of a confused and confusing situation along the Vermont Brigade’s picket line on the afternoon and evening of June 23, 1864.  Several maps display the lack of coordination and lack of response from those higher up the command chain.  This section of the book is an excellent micro history of the Vermont Brigade on the worst day in its history.

The book shifts to what happened to the men of these Vermont regiments when they went to Confederate prisoner of war camps.  The officers fared much better than the enlisted men because they were not sent to Andersonville.  The mortality rate for the officers was much lower as a result.  Cross instead focuses on the suffering by the enlisted men, covers the conditions at Andersonville and other camps, and offers some educated theories as to why the mortality rate was so bad for the members of the Vermont Brigade, much worse than the average Andersonville prisoner of war.  As an aside, his article in North & South several years ago touches on these factors as well.

As a former physician who has written numerous articles on medicine and American history and who has an obvious interest in these areas, Cross seems eminently qualified to comment on the suffering of Union prisoners and the preventative measures which could have been taken by Confederate authorities to relieve some of that suffering.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of A Melancholy Affair is the assessment of Union officers’ performance on June 23.  In this chapter, Cross goes down the list of men in a position to do something about the disaster and assigns blame or innocence accordingly.  The major culprit in the author’s mind is the division officer of the day Lt. Colonel Samuel Pingree, in charge of the picket line, and Major Charles King Fleming, the commander of the men on the picket line who were ultimately captured.  Pingree would not allow a retreat but escaped himself to the main line.  Fleming would not allow a retreat even when it became obvious that his position was untenable.  Corps commander Horatio Wright receives criticism for his utterly tentative actions on a day where he was expected to advance.  Meade is censured for his inability to make Wright do what he and Grant wanted.

Cross’ thoughts on each man is interesting. He does a thorough job of covering what each man could have known and what they did as a result.  Less convincing is the attempt to assign a mental illness or incapacity of some kind to Major Fleming.  Trying to do this through the fog of almost 150 years is a difficult if not impossible task, and the result here is uneven.  Lewis Grant is completely exonerated from blame, but if you are going to hold division commander Wheaton or Division Officer of the Day Pingree responsible for failing to remove the skirmishers from their predicament, Grant should receive some of the same scrutiny.  Ultimately one should consider who the prisoners’ themselves held accountable, as Cross does, with the result that Fleming and Pingree are ultimately the two men most directly responsible for the disaster.  Interestingly, the two men took different postwar career paths.  Pingree was able to use his military service as a springboard to Governor of Vermont, while Fleming moved to New York and was possibly shamed from ever applying to be a Grand Army of the Republic member.  His gravestone doesn’t even mention his military service in the Union army.

A Melancholy Affair is an important book for several reasons.  First, there are simply no published books which focus exclusively on Grant’s Second Offensive.  Cross’ work here covers a major event of the offensive in a detailed way.  Second, detailed tactical studies of the actions around Petersburg are few and far between.  Cross fills this void as well.  Third, the author’s look at Andersonville and conditions there sets this book apart from standard battle/campaign studies.  Future chroniclers of the Battle of Jerusalem Plank Road would do well to use Cross as a source for the VI Corps’ fighting on June 23.

Cross has spent over a decade researching the Vermont Brigade’s disaster, and his sources illustrate this nicely.  He of course utilizes the standard sources such as the Official Records, but his research and background paid off in a big way. The author goes to numerous letters, diary entries, and newspaper accounts to find evidence of how the Vermont veterans perceived what happened to them that day.  His background as a physician leads to some interesting angles about Andersonville not found in a typical battle study.  In fact, there were quite a few sources which will prove to be quite useful at The Siege of Petersburg Online.  The maps are mostly very good, especially those depicting the Union skirmish line down to company detail in places.   Although some of the older hand drawn maps were difficult to read and make out, the author did readers a nice service by listing out in text some of the key spots on these drawings.  Images were scattered nicely, allowing faces to be put to some of the key players on that disastrous day.

A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864 is both a detailed battle study and a look at prison conditions at Andersonville rolled into one.  The book covers the single darkest day in the history of the Vermont Brigade and covers the lives ruined and lost in the aftermath of an entirely preventable tragedy.  Those interested in Vermont in the Civil War, the Vermont Brigade in particular, the Siege of Petersburg, battle studies, and Civil War prisons will all find value in this book.  Some of the conclusions may not resonate with all readers, but please do read this fascinating book and decide on your own who is most responsible.  A Melancholy Affair defies an easy fit into any specific category and proved to be a refreshing change of pace.  The book is highly recommended to students of the Petersburg Campaign and Vermont in the Civil War.  Others may find the book interesting as well.


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