General Edward Porter Alexander Part 1-5

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The bright moon cast its soft light over the frightful scene of battle as the ground fog and powder smoke, from the day’s intense fighting, cast ghostly shadows over the surreal landscape. The pungent oder of sulfur and death was every where. Dead horses littered the field and wounded animals wandered aimlessly among the dead and dying who only a few hours before were America’s finest. The pitiful creatures, in their agony , were the only visible movement in the horrific scene.

The Day’s action had involved three hours of the most desperate fighting ever seen in North America. Two CSA divisions of infantry of 13,000 men with 62 guns had driven off 40,000 federal defenders with 100 canons from the PA peach orchard. The Butternut scarecrows controlled the field but the cost was disturbingly high. A 28 year old Colonel of Artillery named Porter Alexander had lost 144 men and 116 horses during the battle. The loss for the infantry was much worse. Much of the fighting had been hand to hand in the middle of grapeshot and canister. At points the union men fighting the southern infantry with sponge rammers, water buckets and bare hands if they had nothing else. But they were eventually driven off at the point of the bayonet and had to give up the ground. It appeared to be another victory of General Lee and the Army of Norther Virginia, but the real fighting was still to come. There had been heavy fighting around Little Round Top and the rocky hell of Devil’s Den. However, the boys in gray had failed to take the heavily reinforced position. It would come back to bite them in the ass. July 3, 1863 would show the previous day’s fighting only to be the opening round. Gettysburg was to become a legend in the history of warfare.

When darkness fell and the fighting sputtered out, the real work began. The rounded of both sides within the lines had to be taken to water and fed, crippled horses killed and the harness removed. Southern dead had to be promptly buried. The enemy was left where they lay. Every limber and caisson had to be fully stocked with the proper caliber cartridges, fuses and primers from ordnance wagons. The men had to be fed and supplied with food for tomorrow’s action. Scattered men had to be reunited with their units to try to get some sleep.

At 1:00AM Alexander had completed his scouting and located what appeared to be, the best positions for his guns. Exhausted, he had to get some sleep. The once peaceful peach orchard was a mess of blood and gore with blue draped corpses and horse bodies everywhere. Alexander pulled down a couple of fence rails and with his saddle used as a pillow, got two hours of very deep sleep.

When he woke, and did another check on his gun position, he found the Union line wasn’t were he thought it was the night before. His guns were in seriously dangers. He had been fooled by the powder smoke that still hung in the air and the rough terrain of Devil’s Den and the Round Top mountains. He saw immediately his adversary, the brilliant General Henry Hunt had the upper hand with his superior positioning of his guns. At first light Alexander quickly got his gun crews limbered up and moving to a safer position before the union gun crews could realize his mistake and take them under fire.

General Lee had total confidence in Alexander’s leadership and abilities and he was advanced from General Longstreet’s chief of Artillery to general artillery command of the forces facing cemetery ridge. It was not an enviable position an would become more so before the sun set on July 3, 1863. Union General George Meade was and experienced and hard boiled commander who had taken over command of the Army of the potomac only days before the battle. Like all serious officers in the union army, he carried a deep respect, more like fear, of the reputation of Mars Lee. Meade had the upper hand and was determined to hold the position they had managed to gain. He controlled the high ground and was positioned in a way to be able to operated with interior lines. He also had the benefit of a signal station and long range rifles canons on Little Round Top which could see the rebel lines. Enfilading fire would rake any movement made by the CSA made in daylight against the Union lines.

Alexander’s nearest ammo supply depo was 150 miles away in Staunton, Va. He had to support the infantry but also had to account for saving enough ammo in case he had to cover a withdrawal back to Virginia. CSA fuses were famously defective and the artillery couldn’t give support using airbursting munitions. There was always the fear of premature detonation with shrapnel and exploding shell. Solid shot would have been enough but infantry couldn’t tell the difference and threatened to fire on the gun crews if such tactics were used. Union forces had the numerical advantage of over two to one in manpower and great superiority in heavy guns with an unlimited amount of quality ammunition close at hand.

The battle plan for July 3 was a straightforward product of the strategic mind of R.E. Lee. It called for a simultaneous attack at dawn on both the left and right of the federal line. with an intense barrage to pummel the union center. A low rise called Seminary Ridge had Alexander’s 75 guns strung out for a thousand yards along it’s crest. It paralleled the slightly higher ground of Cemetery Ridge. Three quarters of a mile. three high rail fences, and the Emmitsburg Pike separated the two armies. Fifteen thousand men were to assemble behind Alexander’s artillery.

General Longstreet was to give the order to advance on the Union position at the instant the maximum damage was achieved by the barrage. At the last moment Alexander received a note from Longstreet stating the he was to personally advise Pickett of the time to make the charge, depending upon the damage inflicted on the union position. A second note quickly followed telling Alexander to order the attack only, if in his judgement it could be made. The success or failure of the entire campaign was now placed on the shoulders of the 28 year old artillery colonel. The future of the Confederacy now depended on the quick decision that had to be made from a distance of 1300 yards through a screen of powder smoke. Alexander would have to solely rely on the amount of counter battery fire from the target area to assess the situation and give the order. Had had ammunition enough to keep 75 guns in action for less than an hour. The target area was the stonewall on the brow of the ridge. The guner’s elevation had to be perfect. They were shooting at a narrow horizontal line that would be invisible after their smoke rolled across the field.

The idea was sound but the problem lay with the execution. ” The problem isn’t going there . the problem will be staying there. The entire union army is there in a bunch.”

A heavy counter attack by Meade at dawn on the CSA left took the battle weary men in gray on the north side of the line by surprise and out of action for the day. The ragged firing brought the south end of the line to life, but they could make no progress due to the rugged terrain and heavy fire.

At the signal of two guns fired in the peach orchard, Alexander was to open the greatest artillery barrage ever seen in the western hemisphere. It was 100PM before the sound of the signal guns opening fire reached Alexander’s ears. He immediately gave the order to open fire and the Confederate lone erupted towards Cemetery Ridge. The blue troops laying fat had never seen anything like it. General Hunt had ordered his batteries not to return fire, as he knew something big was coming. However, a few union guns answered Alexander sporadically. Hunt had 18 guns at the critical point on the ridge and they were mostly untouched.

Alexander’s fire had gone high and much damage was done to the back side of the hill, exploding several caissons and killing a number of horses. With little fire coming from the enemy and several explosions visible. Alexander quickly sent a note to Pickett. It looked as good as it was going to get. Peering through the thick smoke with his powerful glass, he could see Hunt’s 18 guns being removed from the line and he fired off another urgent note to Pickett. “For God’s sake come quick. The 18 guns are gone.”

The time was 1:40PM. Longstreet wouldn’t answer Pickett’s request to advance. He turned in his saddle and looked away , so Pickett saluted and said ” I’m going sir.” He then raced to the head of his column to make his immortal charge.

Alexander’s guns were getting low on ammunition and by then they had fired 6000 rounds. AS Pickett’s passed through the gun batteries and formed up for the attack, they presented a spectacular sight. They formed up and moved out at a quick march. The lines were straight as on a dress parade as they advanced for a few hundred yards there was no firing from the Union line. The union line mesmerized by the bravery of the infantry marching into the face of death.

Then the rifled guns on Little Round Top opened fire from enfilade a mile away. Huge gaps were torn through the advancing gray line. Ten or more men blown apart with every shot, but they closed up and kept moving, eyes fixed on the clump of trees standing at the stone wall. The rail fences slowing their advance while they broke them down or climbed over under a withering fire approaching the level of a hailstorm. At the Emmitsburg road, they again formed the line for the final assault. By then intense musket fire was pouring from behind the stone wall and General Hunt had moved his guns back into the line with their chests filled with canister and grapeshot. The gunners set their sights low and they didn’t have to aim. It was impossible to miss as they fired round after round of double canister shot into the southerners. At about 50 yards a devastating volley of musket fire rattled the southern line to its core. At the stone wall the brutal fighting became hand to hand with bayonets and club muskets. For a ephemeral moment, the CSA colors waved at the crest of the hill, then vanished.

Alexander had placed nine smooth bore guns to supper the advance. But when he sent for them, they had been moved and couldn’t be found. Nothing was going right for the Army Of Northern Virginia this day. He rode to the south end of the line in time to discover a blue tide moving toward the flank of PIckett’s men. There happened to be a few of his guns in the peach orchard with enough ammo left to make a difference. They were quickly ordered forward and in no time they began cutting holes through the massed federal troops that scattered like quail.

Three General Officers died in the attack on Cemetery Ridge. Generals Kemper, Garnett and Armistead. The last two being long time friends of Alexander’s. General Lee rode out alone and gave encouragement to the small returning groups of Pickett’s desolated division. Alexander joined the commanding officer as Lee told the men that he was personally responsible. “It’s all my fault”. Lee told the men he knew they had given their best effort to carry the day. He said it wasn’t their failure, but his, and now was the time for all good men to regroup. The Army took a defensive position behind Alexander’s guns and waited for the expected counter attack. A counter attack that never came.

Lee ordered the wounded to be quickly evacuated to Williamsport starting early on the morning of July 4. The Potomac was at flood stage and Lee’s retreating army had its back to the wall. The fords couldn’t be used, but he had left a strategically placed pontoon bridge. It had been damaged by a Union cavalry troop, but the engineers tore down some old buildings and used the material to get it repaired in record time. At the end of long wait, Alexander’s guns crossed the swollen Potomac on their way back to Virginia. General Meade failed to follow up with an attack and close in for the kill. his unwillingness to chase Lee meant the war would go on for another year and a half.

Edward Alexander Porter’s boyhood home was Washington, Georgia where he grew up on his family’s plantation. He dearly loved shooting, fishing and the outdoor life. His father owned two plantations with plenty of game. Porter, as his friends called him , was on a fishing trip with an old friend of the family when the elderly fellow told him that Southern hotheads were discussing secession. The year was 1848 and Porter was 13 years old. He wrote that he could still recall the sport where he heard it. He would rather have lost his gun, his dearest possession on earth, than see it happen. Guns would play a major part in his life and from a very early age, he wanted to go to West Point. His father was determined that he would become an engineer. They were at an impasse until a family guest told them that Porter could get an education in engineering at West Point. He graduated third in his class in 1857 and was sent west with a supporting column commanded by Captains Garnett and Armistead. The two good friends would die six years in PA, but now they were on their way to the war in Utah Territory. The intent was to support Albert Sidney Johnston’s punitive expedition, but Brigham Young waved the white flag and agreed to allow the federal governor to take office. The was called off. Alexander spent much of the trip hunting antelope, elk and buffalo, for camp meat. He found his Harpers Ferry Rifle barely adequate for the bison, but his excellent marksmanship made the difference. Alexander’s infantry made it to Fort Bridger when they received orders to return to West Point. They made the 1019 miles in 47 marches to Ft. Leavenworth and rode the water ways to return home.

Porter stayed at West Point as an assistant instructor. He served on the examining bard evaluating newly invented breech loading arms, and worked to prefect the wigwag system of semaphore communication that was the start of the signal corps. On April 3, 1860 he married the love of his life, Bettie Mason. He would always refer to her as “Miss Teen.” On their wedding day, orders were received to immediately proceed to Oregon. The newlyweds sold their furniture and caught a boat for the Isthmus of Panama. When they arrived at Fort Steilacoom, Washington Territory MIss Teen had come down with Panama Fever and weighed only 95 pounds by their arrival. She would recover and they greatly enjoyed the pacific coast. Porter found the hunting and fishing to be unsurpassed.

When his home state of Georgia seceded from the union on Jan. 19, 1861, his worst nightmare had came to pass. He was ordered to report to Lt. James B. McPherson on Alcatraz Island to engineer fortifications for the coming war. When he informed McPherson of his plans, his friend told him that his orders had just arrived by Pony Express. The War department intended for him to sit out the coming unpleasantness on the Pacific Coast, the chance of a lifetime. . However..Alexander had to go with his home state of Georgia and the Confederacy or he would be considered the worst kind of coward bu his friends and family. McPherson was saddened but understood. He knew the meaning of honor and duty and was a fine officer who would go on to lose his life in the battle for Atlanta in 1864.

Porter and his wife made their way to Richmond, it was an anxious trip with the winds of war approaching, They noticed a difference in the appearance of the military when they crossed the Mason-Dixon Line. Southern troops were mostly armed with the old .69 caliber smoothbores while their union counterparts had the new .58 caliber rifled muskets. The yankees were much better dressed and well fed while the Rebels already had a lean hungry look to them. Alexander and his bride were not impressed with the unmilitary appearance pf their fellow countrymen, but there was concealed fighting spirit that was invisible to the casual observer.

Once in Richmond on June 1st, 1861 a Confederate captain of the signal corps was waiting for him. By July he was in Manassas, Va. with his company. Jos. E. Johnston and Pierre Beauregard were in command. Porter established signal stations and with the help of a powerful telescope given to him by a friends in Richmond, he was able to give information to his superiors. The First Battle Of Bullrun was a no holds barred slugfest between two uniformed mobs. The Union army was severly routed due as much to their lack of strategy and poor execution as to the superiority of the boys in gray. The battle ended with a footrace back to Washington and the south failed to follow up their best chance to end the war.

General McDowell was replaced by McClellan as Lincoln’s General in charge. The Richmond government’s ace in the hole was the strange instructor from VMI who stood his ground on the field like a stonewall. In less than a year and a half Thomas J Jackson’s career would go from obscurity to one of the greatest military legends of all time, ending with his accidental death from his own troops.

General McClellan spent the rest of the year rebuilding the army while General Johnston pulled back into Richmond to complain to Jefferson Davis endlessly and abandoned the hard won Manassas position. Beauregard was transferred west to Albert Sidney Johnston’s command in time for the battle at Shiloh. Alexander was appointed as ordnance chief in charge of wagon trains and depots to keep the army supplied with all calibers of amunition. Spring of 1862 found “Little Mac” with 100,000 men, moving up the Virginia peninsula to within 7 miles of the CSA capital. Johnston was wounded and President Davis replaced him with his personal military advisor. AS Johnston would later say, his getting shot was the best thing to ever happen to the Confederacy. His wound brought General Robert E. Lee to command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Within a short time span Mars Lee would savage the Union Army with lightning fast attacks relentlessly and drive them away from the Capital.

McClellan was using hydrogen filled observation balloons to great advantage. The boys in gray could not make an unseen daylight move. Alexander was given an observation balloon to counter spy on the union threat. Dr. Edward Cheves of Georgia had conceived the idea and bought up all the silk available in his part of the world. The material was treated with a coating of salvaged runner dissolved in oil and the finished airship was filled with methane from the Richmond gas works. It was a lot less buoyant than the hydrogen filled balloons and leaked badly but managed to get the job done. Alexander had an extreme fear of heights that filled him with the desire to leap from high places. However, he immediately lost his fear on his first ascent and was able to give vital information until his balloon met with disaster. After being attached to a small gunboat that ran aground in the James river the CSA’s only observation balloon was lost. Barely escaping capture, Alexander lived to fight another day. He later said one could get addicted to ballooning.

Lee wasted no time with the wolf at the door. In the short and bloody period called the Seven Days battle, Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had no only saved the Confederate capital, they forced the largest and best equipped army in North America to withdraw. The following weeks and months would see Lincoln desperately switching his commanding generals and trying to find some one who would drive a union dagger into the CSA. Second Manassas, Sharpsburg and Fredericksburg all proved to be great disappointments to the great man in the white house. Each hard fought battle afforded Alexander the chance to hone his skills in tactics and gun placement. At Fredericksburg General Lee questioned his placement of the guns on Marye’s Heights opposed by Burnside’s powerful artillery across the river. Alexander remarked that a chicken wouldn’t be able to survive on the field when his artillery opened on it. He never dreamed that Burnside would chose that spot for the focus of his attack, but he was ready. The finest regiments the Union had to offer became fodder for Alexander’s guns as they cut them down wheat. With Lee’s infantry in the sunken road behind a quarter mile length of stone wal, backed up with artillery on the heights, it wasn’t a battle so much as a massacre.

At the end of the Fredericksburg massacre Lee spoke to his staff, ” It is well that war is so terrible. Otherwise, we would become too fond of it.”

After the disaster at Fredrickburg, Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joe Hooker. He started south with the union army with 105,000 men. The most direct route to Richmond passed directly through the wooded swamp known as the Wilderness. Of course Lee and Jackson blocked the only road at Chancellorsville with their 32,000 veterans. Stonewalls flanking maneuver screened by a railroad cut, turned the federal line into a route. As the battle went on into the night Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men while returning from a night time scouting of the federal lines. Lee’s cavalry commander, JEB Stuart took command and Alexander and his artillery fired grapeshot and canister fire into the retreating blue masses. They were able to use their long range whitworth rifles on the retreating wagons. The Union army was able to once again pull defeat from the jaws of victory but the stress of nonstop campaigns was starting to show on the CSA.

The war in the west wasn’t going well and Longstreet’s corps was shipped by rail to east Tennessee to help out. Alexander and his guns didn’t arrive in time to have much effect on the battle at Chicamauga, but Longstreet’s infantry swept the field. General Bragg was not up to the level of Lee and Alexander found him lacking in leadership ability. The artillery commander and his gunners did do their duty in spite of poor ammunition and worse strategy at Chattanooga. There was no complaining when the unit was returned to General Lee’s command.

7 COMMENTS

    • I have a few more I’m working on right now. Malvern Hill battle and the Lee at the Harper’s ferry raid and some short ones. It won’t be too much longer.

      • I know, I did search, particularly for the images using the reverse google search. And I get that these images might not be super duper quality, but I refuse to believe your 2014 digital camera takes pictures in 1024×768. I just assumed they’re automatically compressed in resolution to not take up to much server bandwidth or some similar IT mumbo jumbo.
        Oh well, if you don’t have them it’s fine.

        • yes they are compressed on the site to save resources. Originally they were better but I am sad to say they were on my old laptop which is now Tango Uniform and I have lost them forever

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