Saturday, January 14, 2012

West Point “gave us some dummies”

South Carolina’s John Cheves Haskell, who fought throughout the Civil War, losing an arm at Gaines’ Mill along the way, and married not only Wade Hampton’s daughter but also the daughter of Hampton’s brother Frank, left a memoir in which he mused that the first crop of major generals (division commanders) of what became the Army of Northern Virginia gave credence to “the charge, frequently made then and now, that we were handicapped by West Point.” The charge of course was an absurdity, but looking at it in Haskell’s context, where the army was reorganized into divisions commanded by G. W. Smith, Longstreet, Jackson, Holmes, Huger, and Kirby Smith, one is inclined to agree that, “The Academy certainly gave us some great soldiers, but it also gave us some dummies, who were grievous stumbling-blocks in our way.” And among those named, Haskell excepted Longstreet, Jackson, and “perhaps” Kirby Smith.

Regardless of how things turned out, when these fellows were appointed, they were conceivably among the best available, based upon objective criteria. Indeed Huger, who is currently under the microscope here, was so valuable to Robert E. Lee just prior to his fall from grace that Lee refused South Carolina’s governor’s entreaties that Huger be sent to Charleston to command the state’s defenses. Huger, Lee stated, was too valuable where he was: “He has always been regarded as an officer of great merit, especially as an artillerist.” But Huger was basely scapegoated for the Confederate failure at Seven Pines and his actions subsequently appeared to confirm the initial calumny – that he was too slow, not where he was supposed to be, not with his command, etc.

Which brings us to Oak Grove. Although Huger wrote a report of his division’s combat at Oak Grove, there is no indication that he was actually present at the events he described. In fact, on the very day of the attack, General Lee informed President Davis that Huger “was absent…Not at his qrs” and that he “had sent him an order to take his position with his troops & to remain with them.” However, having read Sears’ narrative of the battle (which appears to be the most complete account in the secondary literature) and other modern sources, only one mentions Huger’s absence (Dowdey’s The Seven Days), although the evidence for it is hiding in plain sight in the primary literature.

Now Huger’s absence from his command, particularly on the eve of a major offensive, would have been damning in Lee’s eyes. And both Sears and Dowdey report Lee going forward to the Oak Grove sector during the fighting. Curiously, Rhoades’ biography of Huger (see above) mentions neither Huger’s absence, nor Lee’s presence on the battlefield. It is possible that Huger was present later in the day (in response to Lee’s orders?). At least Sears indicates this, but it is practically impossible to link this fact to Sears’ footnotes the way they’re arranged, and I’m still awaiting the one source that I hope will confirm Sears’ narrative on this point.

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