VALLEY THUNDER: An Interiew with Author Charlie Knight

I’ve recently read Charlie Knight’s book Valley Thunder: The Battle of New Market and the Opening of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign, May 1864. My original intention was to write a standard review for Shenandoah 1864. However, with glowing reviews coming from authorities such as William C. Davis, author of the previous definitive work on New Market, there is little left to be said. I will only add that the historical community should be very grateful to Charlie for his accurate telling of the story of the Battle of New Market and the role of the “regular” Confederate infantry. He presents the VMI Cadets in a fair light, but does an exceptional job placing their efforts into the overall framework of the battle, thereby giving long overdue credit to the Confederate “regulars.” I have sent Charlie a series of questions and he has graciously responded.

SHEN64: John C. Breckinridge did a tremendous job of rushing his

Charlie Knight


forces to the Shenandoah Valley to confront Sigel and fighting the
battle. However, after the battle, he failed to pursue the beaten
Sigel in spite of Lee urging him to do so. In doing so, he forfeited
the initiative to the U.S. Forces and opened the door for Hunter’s
Raid on Lynchburg. How do you think that Stonewall Jackson would have
reacted if he had been in Breckinridge’s position after New Market?

CK: Jackson proved repeatedly during the 1862 Valley Campaign, most notably at Port Republic with the “one-lane” wagon bridge and before that at Bridgewater (home of my alma mater), that he would not let a flooded and supposedly “impassable” river block his path. Had Jackson been in Breckinridge’s shoes, I fully envision Stonewall leaving a very small holding force there on the Valley Pike at the river crossing just south of Mt. Jackson, while taking the bulk of his force across the Massanutten through New Market Gap toward Luray (as he did leading up to the engagement at Front Royal) and moving down the Valley with a view to flanking Sigel and intercepting his line of retreat around Strasburg or Middletown. Another, and to me less likely possibility (less likely because he would not have had a mountain range to shield his movement) would be taking the bulk of the force westward to Timberville and moving north along Back or Middle Road toward Woodstock or further north. And while the flanking column was moving, the engineers would have been at work constructing a bridge there south of Mt Jackson as quickly as possible for whatever force was left on the Pike to harass the rear guard and slow the Federal retreat as much as possible. Either way, the last thing Jackson would have done would have been to simply leave Imboden behind with a parting message of “Good luck” and leaving the theater of operations. And I don’t mean this as a knock on Breckinridge, he – like Lee – just did not foresee Sigel/Hunter regrouping so quickly. Going across the Blue Ridge to join the Army of Northern Virginia seemed a worthwhile gamble at the time.

SHEN64: When I did my research on the battle of Piedmont, I found several
sources that spoke of walking the battlefield when they went back up
the Valley with Hunter. They unanimously agreed that Sigel was a
brave leader but incompetent. How do you feel about Sigel as a
commander?

CK: Speaking of Piedmont, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how much I enjoyed your Piedmont book.

Sigel is a fellow who is easy to despise, and by this I mean he lost nearly every battle he was involved in, excepting Pea Ridge. Yet he somehow became a political rallying point for his countrymen, thus could not be ignored. Although battlefield success continually eluded him, Sigel was not without his merits – he, not unlike George McClellan, was an excellent organizer. He was, however, very given to cronyism – something he displayed with some of his command choices during the New Market campaign, most notably Augustus Moor, Julius Stahel and Max Weber (commander of the Harpers Ferry garrison). David Strother, one of Sigel’s staff officers, and others noted the clique-like atmospher of Sigel’s inner circle, particularly the foreign element of Sigel’s personal staff, and how they did not, shall we say, play well with others, and some come across as little more than “yes men.” Yet the handful of accounts which mention Sigel’s actions during the actual fighting on May 15 all note his personal bravery – several times he is mentioned as aiding in trying to get cannon off the field, and as his Bushong Hill line was falling apart, he is found riding along the line trying to rally the troops. George Wells, colonel of the 34th Massachusetts, specifically mentions Sigel’s bravery in his official report – high praise coming from someone like Wells, who it can be inferred from the writings of his second in command in the 34th, Lt Col William Lincoln, did not particularly care much for Sigel personally. As Eric Wittenberg often says of Fitzhugh Lee, that Fitz would have made a good regimental Sergeant Major but for being nephew of R.E. Lee, so too would Franz Sigel likely have made a good corps or division adjutant.

SHEN64: Thanks Charlie. I’ve looked at these battles as siblings of sort, especially on the Union side. I too have a soft spot for the German and wonder if he might have done better if he simply spoke better English. I also think that we have to be careful to avoid the anti-German sentiment that was very common among the Anglo-Americans during the war. Stahel truly was in over his head but Moor had solid experience. At New Market he had his brigade chopped up by Sigel and was given a hybrid command and sent out in advance of the army. He did a creditable job at Droop Mountain and Piedmont.

SHEN64: This is a what if scenario based upon Sigel and Sullivan’s failure
to get the 28th and 116th Ohio to the battlefield. Based on how the
battle played itself out, would have the presence of these two
regiments have affected the combat if they had been in line with the
34th Massachusetts and 54th Pennsylvania?

CK: Tough question, but a fun one to consider. To me what Sigel was lacking at New Market truly was not enough troops but rather enough capable commanders. In his main line at Bushong Hill, Sigel had the 12th West Virginia in reserve and that unit never really became actively engaged (even though they did sustain casualties). What Sigel had was a sub-par brigade commander in Joseph Thoburn who was unable to effectively exploit the Confederate “problems” at the Bushong farm. Had Thoburn been able to coordinate his counter-attack, the 12th WV was already available to exploit the break-through. That said, the presence of the two “missing” Ohio regiments could have extended his infantry line down to Smith’s Creek to more strongly anchor the Federal left, which would have freed up Stahel’s cavalry for other purposes. Had the Federal left consisted of Infantry rather than cavalry, it probably would not have given way as Stahel did and thus prevented Echols/Patton (whoever was actually in command of that brigade that day) from turning Sigel’s left. This is all, of course, assuming that Sigel would have BEST used the two additional units, which is a BIG “if” in this particular “what if” scenario given some of the other decisions made by the Federal commander.

SHEN64: Whenever I’ve been involved in a Civil War research project, some
unexpected personality emerges that I had not anticipated. Did you
have any surprises in your research with any individuals who impressed
you or whose reputations may have sank in the course of your research
on New Market?

CK: For some reason, and I don’t know why, John Breckinridge has always been a favorite of mine. But the real “surprise” junior officer of New Market to me is George Duncan Wells, commander of the 34th Massachusetts. Reading his personal letters home to his family, one realizes how out of place this highly-educated and intellectual man was in the Department of West Virginia. (And the rest of the 34th felt that they should not be stuck with these “rough fellows” from Ohio and West Virginia – Lt Col Thomas Wildes of the 116th Ohio noted the condescending attitude of the Bay Staters to the western soldiers.) At one point in his writings, Wells laments being on provost duty in backwoods Martinsburg, WV, while friends in other Massachusetts units are seeing action and earning laurels with the Army of the Potomac. Both from his own writings and from those of the officers and men under his command, it seems apparent to me that Wells and not Thoburn should have had brigade command. Col William Tibbits, 21st New York Cavalry, is another whose talents seem to have been wasted for, even though he did command a brigade, the inept way that Sigel and Stahel handled the mounted arm deprived Tibbits of a chance to show his talents.

SHEN64: The Kentuckian has always intrigued me as well. To me, there is much to be admired in his post war silence and avoiding the Jubal Early blame game and framing how history would be interpreted. But I still love the old crustacean. The Bay State boys had a high opinion of themselves but I’d take Wildes’ boys any day.

SHEN64: Colonel George S. Patton – Would he have the historical notoriety
that he enjoys today if his grandson had been the United States most
recognized combat general in WWII?

CK: Now there’s a loaded question!! New Market is somewhat unique i think with all the ties to famous historical figures, both before the war and after the war, involved. In addition to Patton (whose step-grandfather incidentally was also present on the field at NM – Col George Smith, 62nd Virginia), you also have the uncle of Douglas MacArthur, William Charles Hardy, with the VMI Cadets, as well as Cadet Thomas Garland Jefferson, a descendant of the third President, and a host of others. As to Col Patton, although from a distinguished military lineage, you never really see him distinguish himself on any field. He performs ably of course, but as far real distinguishing brilliance – it’s just never there. He likely did command the right wing of Breckinridge’s army at New Market owing to John Echols’ illness that day and did put to flight the Federal left, but Gen Patton’s mentions of his grandfather’s exploits seem to have been embellished somewhat, shall we say. But then again, Patton did meet an untimely end and given the attrition which hit Early’s army later, who knows – maybe Patton could have become the hero of Cedar Creek.

SHEN64: Do you think that Jeremiah Sullivan served Sigel in an honorable
fashion or was he simply sticking to the precise details of his orders
even though they made no sense at the time?

CK: Sullivan is a splendid example of nepotism in action – he had command of the 1st Infantry Division of the Dept of WV because his father-in-law, Brig Gen Benjamin Kelley, was Sigel’s predecessor as Dept commander. I have never understood why or how Sullivan survived Sigel’s initial command reorganization – either Kelley had more clout than we realize today or Sigel must have seen something in terms of command ability that just hasn’t come down through history to us. Sullivan was a naval officer before the war – why he was given such a high rank and relatively important command right off the bat can only be attributed to his father-in-law’s influence. Unfortunately Sullivan’s whereabouts and contributions to the battle are one of the least-documented aspects of New Market, so there is not much to go on regarding him. But based on what is known, with him bringing up the rear of the army and knowing that a battle was at least pending, if somehow it was not known to him that hostilities had begun at New Market, leaving Henry DuPont’s artillery battery behind and bringing only his infantry to the front – as his orders directed – is highly questionable. But not knowing what sort of relationship he had with Sigel, his decision really cannot be understood – perhaps in earlier dealings with Sigel Sullivan had a reason for acting out Sigel’s orders to the letter as he did. But with what is known, it is well for Sigel that DuPont had enough sense to grasp that he was needed at the front and to take the initiative himself to “ride to the sound of the guns.” I would guess that Sullivan’s orders reading as they did, that being to bring his infantry to the front, with no mention of DuPont’s battery, was simply poor staff work on the part of one of Sigel’s or Stahel’s aides. (Stahel held the dual role of cavalry commander AND Sigel’s Chief of Staff.)

SHEN64: I don’t know if I would give Sullivan the benefit of the doubt by saying it might have been poor staff work. What general with any common sense would leave two batteries when he marched away with the supporting infantry?

SHEN64: Is there anything that you had hoped to learn more about in the
course of your research but were unable to find the sources to delve
into?
CK: Expanding on the previous question, knowing more from Sullivan would clear up his actions considerably, but also the actions of John Imboden after crossing Smith’s Creek are up for debate. There are several hours when Imboden’s actions are undocumented – what was he doing with roughly 800 men the afternoon of the 15th? Was he trying to gain the Federal rear as some have suggested or were he and his brigade merely observers to the battle unfolding across the creek from them? Some of his officers and men left excellent accounts of the campaign and even the morning of the battle, but after crossing Smith’s Creek and threatening the left of one of the preliminary Federal positions, the historical record falls strangely silent.

SHEN64: My feeling on Sullivan is that he was exceedingly unmotivated and was one of those people who just sort of floats through life taking whatever comes there way. He abandoned a naval career prior to the way, then took up law. But after the Civil War he ended up in a clerical position with the government in Oakland, CA. It seems like he didn’t have a lot of ambition and used his connections to get by as best he could with the least amount of challenge. That said, I don’t think his reputation deserves the charges of cowardice that Crook made against him. Ironically, the day Sullivan was relieved of command on July 16, 1864 by Crook, Sullivan actually sent Col. Tibbits out on a raid that damaged Early’s wagon train as it retreated through Purcellville on the way back from Washington. Personally, I have not seen any evidence of personal cowardice on the part of Sullivan. To the contrary at Piedmont, he had three horses shot out from under him while riding the battle lines in the heat of combat.

Charlie, thanks much for agreeing to take part in this. It is quite fun. I only wish that I was savvy enough to actually do an audio interview and have more give and take. Maybe some day I’ll figure it out!

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2 Comments

Filed under Battles

2 responses to “VALLEY THUNDER: An Interiew with Author Charlie Knight

  1. Thanks Scott – I would agree that Sullivan was no coward, just continually in over his head in terms of command ability. I just wish there was more known about what he actually DID the day of the battle. (And aren’t I just the epitome of stylish in my fishing hat??)

    –crk

  2. Keith Yoder

    Thanks for putting the interview online! I am finishing up the book right now so it was interesting to stumble on this interview + the interview with Mr. Knight on Civil War Talk Radio – both in the same week I was reading the book and not actively searching for either. I have to mention one of my favorite things about the book is the use of footnotes instead of end of chapter or end of book notes. It is so nice to not have be constantly flipping back and forth and losing one’s place and train of thought.

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