Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Book Review: From Everglade to Canyon

I had planned to write a review of Theophilus Rodenbough’s From Everglade to Canyon just after I posted his Fiddler’s Green entry. While researching the author’s life, however, I discovered this review from its original publication and found history’s words much more interesting than mine. Merritt's comments weren't too surprising, as he was a popular scapegoat after the 1864 elections and after the war, particularly by the cavalry. I found the comments on General Wright and Cedar Creek intriguing, and am now curious whether Major Smith was present on the battlefield, and if so where.

The following article is from the New York Times edition of January 28, 1876.

“New Publications

The Second United States Cavalry

From Everglade to Canon with the Second Dragoons, (Second United States Cavalry.) An authentic account of service in Florida, Mexico, Virginia, and the Indian country, including the personal recollections of prominent officers, with an appendix containing orders, reports, and correspondence, military records, &c, (1836-1875) Compiled by Theophilus F. Rodenbough, Colonel and Brevet brigadier general, united States Army (late Captain, Second Cavalry) Illustrated. New York: D. Van Nostrand.

The Second Dragoons – more recently and better known as the Second United States Cavalry – was originally organized under an act approved May 23, 1836. David E. Twiggs was its first Colonel, and William S. Harney its Lieutenant Colonel. These names, with those of Col. May, Major Gen. Buford, Brevet Major gen. Philip St. George Cooke, Brevet major Gen. Wesley Merritt, Col. I.N. Palmer, and others whose services were quite as distinguished, carry back the memory to the days of the Seminole War in Florida, then to the Mexican War, in which the organization bore a most brilliant part, following that to frontier service in California, New Mexico, Kansas, and Utah, and finally to the war of the rebellion. From the first Bull Run to the famous battle of Cedar creek, when Sheridan “sent the enemy whirling through Winchester,” the Second cavalry bore a prominent part in every important battle in Northern Virginia and in the Shenandoah Valley. Besides this, it executed some of the most brilliant “raids” of the war, so that its varied experiences cover all the phases of army life, and the rehearsal of its exploits recalls many of the most stirring events in our military history as a nation.

Gen. Rodenbough’s gallant services in connection with the regiment abundantly entitle him to discharge the duties of its historian. He was appointed Second lieutenant of the Second Dragoons March 27, 1861; was promoted to a First Lieutenant the following May, and after serving with the Army of the Potomac through the campaign on the Peninsula, was appointed captain July, 1862. At the battle of Manassas, Aug. 29-30, he was captured, but was exchanged a week afterward, and during the Rappahannock campaign in January-May 1863, he was in constant service – among other duties commanding a squadron during the Stoneman raid. He commanded the regiment in the battle of Gettysburg, as well as during the Richmond campaign, (April-July 1864) accompanying Sheridan on his raid toward Charlottesville in june, and receiving a wound at the battle of Trevillian Station, which kept him out of the field for three months. He returned to his regiment in September, just in time to command it during the battle of the Opequan, where he lost an arm. One promotion after another testified to his gallantry during the war and in individual actions, until he was made Brevet brigadier general in the regular Army in March, 1865, and in December, 1870, was retired from active service, “with full rank of Colonel of cavalry on account of wounds received while on duty.”

In compiling this volume Gen. Rodenbough has modestly but wisely allowed the chief actors in the campaigns through which the Second cavalry passed – those who have made its history – to tell their story in their own words. As a consequence, we have a succession of vivid sketches of campaigns on the frontier and of hard fighting in the field, told with an enthusiasm and force which could only spring from a memory of personal experience. Col. A.T. Lee, for instance, describes a scout with Ben Beall during the Seminole War; Gen. P. St. George Cooke gives his recollections of the campaigns of 1855-1860 in New Mexico and Kansas, a “Trumpeter’s Notes,” by Chief Bugler William Drown, supply sketches of the doings of the organization partly during this same period, (1852-8); “The Letters of a Subaltern” give incidents of the early days of the war, when McClellan was organizing the Army in front of Washington and come down to the famous “change of base” to the James River; one of the “raiders” describes the famous Stoneman raid of 1863; Gen. Merritt sketches the operations of the force from Beverly Ford to Mitchell’s Station, covering some of the hardest fighting and its most brilliant exploits; Col. Charles McK. Leoser tells of a “Ride to Richmond in 1864,” and of his subsequent experience in a rebel prison; Col. William H. Harrison describes the events from Deep Bottom to Winchester in 1864, and Major S. smith gives his personal recollections of Fisher’s Hill and Cedar Creek. Reminiscences of less eventful times are presented by Major Alfred E. Bates, brevet Major Lewis Thompson and Lieut. Gustavus C. Doane, who assume the duty of describing the campaigns in the North-west from 1866-1875, including the Piegan expedition of 1870 and the two Yellowstone expeditions. Gen. Rodenbough introduces and connects these different papers with enough narrative to make them present a tolerably complete history of the organization through all its vicissitudes and exploits, and in an appendix he collects a list of the battles of the regiment, a summary of the military records of the officers, the roll of honor, and numerous orders, reports of operations &c. A carefully-prepared index gives the names of all officers mentioned in the volume, and makes reference easy to the different documents. Maps and numerous illustrations also add to the value and attractiveness.

Such a description of the contents of the handsome volume indicates but slightly the vast amount of labor which its preparation has cost Gen. Rodenbough. Still more imperfectly does it suggest the varied interest which it possesses for the unprofessional reader. Here and there one comes upon incidents either thrilling or grotesque, and which effectively lighten up the severer narratives of skirmishes and battles. Gen. Merritt, for instance, throws into a foot note this laughable story of the fight at Beverly Ford:

“While Dr. Wilson, Chief Surgeon of the regular brigade, was operating in a ‘field’ or ‘flying’ hospital in the cool shade of some trees, exposed occasionally to the warm compliments of the enemy’s artillery, a shell suddenly fell near him as he was in the act of bandaging the leg of a dragoon who had been slightly wounded. Simultaneously with the appearance of the shell the man jumped to his feet and hopped off with amazing agility, exclaiming, ‘Doctor, this isn’t a good place – it’s be-be-better down there!’ at the same time executing the most extraordinary kangaroo hops on one foot, while yards upon yards of the Doctor’s valuable bandage was streaming over the grass behind him. The Doctor started in pursuit, calling upon the fugitive in ‘gentle and persuasive’ tones to halt. All the non-combatants or stragglers joined in the hue and cry, but the stampeded youth continued his camel-like course until the bandage took a turn around the stump and brought him to the ground. It is needless to say that the irate surgeon returned that patient ‘for duty’ on the next morning in report of the company.”

Gen. Merritt, by the way, opens his contribution to this volume with some plain-spoken criticisms upon McClellan and his treatment of the cavalry when he had assumed command of the Army. “It was a grave misfortune,” writes Gen. Merritt, “that the controllers of our Army organization in the early part of the rebellion did not appreciate the part that cavalry was to play in the war – a misfortune for the country – a greater misfortune for the cavalry. *** The few cavalry regiments which were permitted by by our frugal Government *** were emasculated and disorganized by furnishing details as escorts , guides, orderlies, and small scouting parties, until nowhere in the State of Virginia was there a sufficient force of Union cavalry to meet successfully the splendidly-organized squadrons of Southern horse under Stuart and the younger Lees. No one was more to blame for this than McClellan, and no one of the unfortunate commanders of the Army of the Potomac suffered more because of the lack of properly organized cavalry than this general. Nor did he know how to use the cavalry he had in hand. His treatment of cavalry and cavalry commanders was proverbially harsh and unjust. He divided it up with a lavish hand among his infantry corps, division and brigade commanders, so that the smallest infantry organization had its company or more of mounted men, whose duty consisted in supplying details , as orderlies for mounted staff officers, following them mounted on their rapid rides for pleasure or for duty; or in camp, acting as grooms and bootblacks at the various head-quarters. It is not wonderful that this treatment demoralized the cavalry. It is not strange that the early cavalry commanders looked with despair on their shattered squadrons, and submitted in disgust to the disintegration which their best efforts could not prevent, and afterward in silence to the abuse for failures which they did not deserve. It was not until McClellan was removed that the cavalry of the Army of the Potomac was fairly organized under Stoneman, with Buford and David Gregg as his lieutenants. Then it was that we commenced practicing the lessons which the enemy had taught us, pursuing his tactics to his ruin.”

By virtue of having lost an arm at the battle of the Opequan, when he was in command of the regiment, Gen. (then Captain) Rodenbough might have been pardoned had he himself given an account of that famous conflict, but he modestly leaves that duty to others. Major Robert S. Smith in writing of the action says:

“History has given to Gen. Sheridan all honor for his great military services rendered to his country, but has it been equally just to that noble commander, Gen. Wright, to whose matured judgment and skillful action the country has often been indebted? The world accepts success as the only proof of greatness, and by this severe interpretation it cannot now be determined whether the arrival of Gen. Sheridan at the hour he came on the battle-field of Cedar Creek was a greater misfortune to Gen. Wright than it was a benefit to the country. *** No one could more highly appreciate his great achievements than I do. I only plead for equal justice. If Gen. Sheridan had been at the head-quarters of the Army in the morning would that have prevented the surprise upon Crook’s corps? And after the enemy had gained the entrenchments behind Cedar Creek was it possible for the Army to do otherwise than fall back until a new position could be taken, and the line of battle re-formed? This was done, and an Army superior in discipline and numbers faced the enemy ready to advance when Gen. Sheridan arrived. Could the result have been different than it was with such an Army led by so experienced an officer as Gen. Wright?”

In a foot note in which he calls attention to the fact that Major Smith does not speak of the morale of the Army on Sheridan’s arrival, Gen. Rodenbough indicates that does not fully agree with the writer in his criticisms. Still the question may stand as reviving a question which was discussed at the time of the battle to some extent, and which the future historian of the war may consider in describing this notable incident in Sheridan’s campaigns. Such memoirs de service as this are chiefly valuable for the side lights which they throw upon the events with which they are connected. Gen. Rodenbough has shown what conscientious labor, inspired by genuine enthusiasm, can accomplish in this direction, and if future compilers of similar records shall show the same care in their preparation there is no danger that such volumes may be unreasonably multiplied. On page 21 we notice an error in crediting the publication of a military order to The New York Times in 1836, some years before this journal was established.”


FortyRounder said...

Book reviews in the 19th century were not usually this good! It appears the writer wasn't aware, however, that a different New York Times existed before the current paper of that name, which was indeed established in 1851.

Don said...

This is true. I think the review was so positive because Rodenbough was a bit of a celebrity. It indirectly benefitted us cavalry history-inclined folks as well, because it seems other regular regimental histories such as Price's "Across the Continent With the 5th US Cavalry" came out soon after.

Thanks for stopping by!