Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Unexpected Victory at Sabine Pass

About 6:00 am on the morning of September 8, 1863, a Union flotilla of four gunboats and seventeen troop transports commanded by General William B. Franklin steamed into Sabine Pass and up the Sabine River. The attack was part of a Union strategy to invade the Louisiana-Texas coast and interrupt rail connections between the two states.



Model of Fort Griffin
Franklin's plan was to stay on board the transports for as long as possible, reduce Fort Griffin, and land troops to begin the occupation of Texas. The Davis Guards, or Company F of the First Texas Heavy Artillery Regiment, commanded by Captain Frederick Oldham, defended the coast, and on the day of the attack Lieutenant Dick Dowling had the duty at Sabine Pass. As the gunboats approached Fort Griffin, they came under accurate fire from six cannons. The defenders had previously sighted their guns on the narrow channel in the pass, so when the Union vessels started through the pass they fired away when the ships entered their line of fire. They disabled the USS Sachem and the USS Clifton and the disabled ships blocked the pass and prevented the rest of the flotilla from advancing up the river. "Dowling and his forty two Irish Patriots" forced the Union flotilla to retire and captured the Clifton and about 200 prisoners.

 
Monument to Dowling
and his Irish Patriots
in Sabine Pass
President Davis was so pleased with the victory, especially by his namesake unit, that he called it the Confederacy's Thermopylae. Early in 1864, the Confederate Congress passed a resolution which included, among other complimentary language, the declaration that "this defense ... constitutes, in the opinion of Congress, one of the most brilliant and heroic achievements in the history of this war." At the suggestion of Jefferson Davis himself, the soldiers also received silver medals with green ribbons that had "D.G." (for Davis Guards) engraved on one side and "Sabine Pass, Sept. 8, 1863" on the other.




Lt. Dick Dowling
The battle is preserved at the Sabine Pass Battlefield where history buffs mingle with the fisherman who line the railings over the Sabine River. The park has several panels that describe the battle and a model of Fort Griffin. Dick Dowling is immortalized with a fine statue in his and the guard's honor.

Please see The Battle of Sabine Pass, TX II for more photographs.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hidden Code on Civil War Diary

Varina Howell Davis
Queens College computer science professor has deciphered the cryptic notes in Confederate officer James Malbone's civil war diary. Professor Kent Boklan found interesting entries nestled among orders and other military information.  Malbone's entries were written in a code he devised himself where symbols, punctuation marks, and dollar signs were used instead of letters of the alphabet.

The entries contain camp gossip and stories about soldier infidelities.  One of the most interesting items is about meeting Mrs. Jefferson Davis and suggesting that from her looks that "she may have been of mixed race."

There doesn't seem to be any indication of what that "mixture of races" might have been. Her image suggests a number of possibilities including Hispanic, Native American, and African American. 

According to Strode Hudson in Jefferson Davis, Volume I: American Patriot:"She tried intermittently to do what was expected of her, but she never convinced people that her heart was in it, and her tenure as First Lady was for the most part a disaster,"as they picked up on her ambivalence. White residents of Richmond freely criticized Varina Davis; and some described her appearance as "a mulatto or an Indian 'squaw'."

Frankly, I could care less about her pedigree. Mrs. Jefferson was a strong and supporting wife who had incredible influence in the Confederate government.  As the war continued and hardships spread to those who demanded secession, disgruntled Southerners attacked both President Davis and his First Lady. 


President and Mrs. Jefferson Davis
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On a personal note, I have now returned to the land of the living after spending most of the last three months completing my manuscript on the life of Major General Charles Ferguson Smith. The process of obtaining permissions and drawing maps resulted in long days with virtually no time for other activities. Please excuse my prolonged absence. --- A. Mesch

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Role of Engineers in the Civil War: Dennis H. Mahan Creates a Curriculum



Dennis H. Mahan
Professor David Douglass resigned March 1, 1831, and was succeeded by Professor Dennis. H. Mahan on January 1, 1832. Following his graduation in July 1824, Lieutenant Mahan joined the Corps of Engineers. He was assistant professor of mathematics at the Academy from August 29, 1824 to August 31, 1825. Between 1825 and 1830, Mahan spent four years in Europe studying public works and military institutions. He was a student in the military school of application for engineers and artillerists at Metz, France. When he returned home, he served as acting professor of engineering from September 1, 1830 to January 1, 1832.




After his appointment to professor, Mahan devoted his energies to preparing a suitable set of textbooks for the department. As he developed the textbooks, he delivered lectures from his studies in Europe.

By 1841, the class register included a complete set of books and lithographs on engineering and military science. The list includes instruction on an impressive number of topics:
 
  • Mahan's Treatise on Field Fortification
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Permanent Fortification
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Attack and Defense
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Mines and other Accessories
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Composition of Armies and Strategy
  • Mahan's Course in Civil Engineering
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Architecture and Stone Cutting
  • Mahan's Lithographic Notes on Machines (for first section only)
 
These frequently revised books were the basis of the course of engineering during Mahan's time at the Academy. In 1848, he introduced Mahan's Advanced Guard and Outposts; in 1858, Moseley's Mechanics of Engineering, and in 1870 Mahan's Industrial Drawing.

The instruction was presented to the First Class (fourth year) cadets. Around the end of the Civil War, the classes were divided into sections of ten to twelve men each with each section receiving instruction for one and a half hours daily between 8 and 10:30 a.m. Cadets taking the drawing class attended daily from 8 to 11 o'clock. Each section was under the immediate charge of an officer, usually of the Corps of Engineers, as instructor. Professor Mahan visited the sections daily, listened to the recitations, asked questions, and presented additional instruction and remarks as he thought necessary and desirable. This interaction allowed Mahan to judge the instructors abilities, methods of teaching, and grading. He was also able to evaluate the individual Cadets.

Professor Mahan gave very few lectures and most of these were short descriptions of campaigns and battles with criticisms of the tactical positions of the opposing forces. Most of his oral and personal instruction was given to the Cadets during his visits to the section room.

 
The engineering drawing course included the accurate construction of a number of problems contained in fortification drawing and stereotomy, drawings of a canal lock in plan, section, and elevation, and the plan, section, and elevation of a half front of fortification, Noizet's Method. The canal lock and Noizet's Method were finished as completely as time allowed, and the sections, slopes, etc., were usually tinted in watercolors.

Mahan promoted the development of professionalism in military science. His textbooks were used worldwide from the time they were written until after World War I. Mahan also founded the Napoleon Seminar at West Point, where advanced under-graduates and senior officers studied and discussed the great European wars.

Professor Mahan's lectures and writings about military fortifications and strategy were instrumental in the conduct of the Civil War by the officers on both sides. Most of the Civil War commanders learned about entrenchment, fortifications, and warfare from his classes and books.

On September 16, 1871, the West Point Board of Visitors recommended Mahon be forced to retire from teaching. The distraught Mahan committed suicide by leaping into the paddlewheel of a steamboat on the Hudson River.

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Role of Engineers in the Civil War: The Beginning of Engineering and Military Science Instruction


Instruction in civil engineering and military science in the US Army began sometime between 1795-1798, while the regiment of Artillerists and Engineers was stationed at West Point. Colonel Rochefontaine and Captain Rivardi, formerly of the French army, constructed a small model of the front of a fortification. Training in military engineering began when Congress established the Military Academy on March 16, 1802. The elements of fortification were taught using Rochefontaine and Rivardi's model. Until 1818, the instruction in military engineering was done by lectures illustrated by the model and through field exercises in practical engineering. The lectures were delivered by the Superintendent until 1808, by the teacher of French, Francis O. Masson, from I808 to 1813, and after that by the professor of engineering. The only textbook used was a small fifty-page pamphlet, translated from the French by Colonel Jonathan Williams, Corps of Engineers, the Academy's first Superintendent.


Alden Partridge
Congress established the department of engineering on April 29, 1812. "That the Military Academy shall consist of the Corps of Engineers and the following professors ... one professor of the art of engineering in all its branches ... and each of the foregoing professors shall have an assistant professor, taken from the most prominent characters of the officers or Cadets." Captain Alden Partridge, Corps of Engineers, was appointed professor of engineering on September 1, 1813. Partridge graduated from the Military Academy on October 30, 1806, and was assigned to the Corps of Engineers. He served at the Academy as assistant professor of mathematics from November 4, 1806, to June 5, 1811; as principal assistant professor of mathematics from April 29, 1812, to September 1, 1813; and as professor of engineering from September 1, 1813, to December 31, 1816. Much of the time, while he was professor of engineering he was also Superintendent of the Academy, and therefore gave little attention to the work of his department.
 
During the early 1800s engineering instruction was given less emphasis than either French or drawing. Most of the graduating cadets were only taught the definitions in William's primer. Many Cadets did not know the difference between the ditch and the glacis of a fort except by the conventional colors used in drawings. Two Cadets, who graduated in 1815 into the Engineer Corps, had only studied basic trigonometry.
 
Claudius Crozet
On March 16, 1817, Professor Claude Crozet succeeded Superintendent Partridge. Professor Crozet was born in France and was educated at the Polytechnic School. He had served as assistant professor of engineering since October 1, 1816. Crozet introduced descriptive geometry as a prerequisite for studying engineering, employed the blackboard in demonstrations, and applied some of the methods used by the Polytechnic School in developing and teaching engineering. The work of all the departments in the Academy was greatly aided by the reforms instituted by the new Superintendent, Major Sylvanus Thayer.
  
A Treatise on the Science
of War and Fortification
A Treatise on the Science of War and Fortification by Colonel de Vernon, professor of fortification at the Polytechnic School, France was translated by Captain John M. O'Connor, US Artillery, and introduced in 1818. The first volume of the two-volume text presented a general review of the science of war and a discussion of field fortifications and the second volume presented the fundamentals of permanent fortifications. The appendix contained a summary of the principles and guidelines of grand tactics and operations. Other French military fortification books were used in the course as supplemental texts for lectures or as references.
  
The Cadets studied the textbook according to the following procedures:  
  1. The Fourth Class Cadets were divided into two sections for the military course instruction.   
  2. The first section was instructed in the entire course of engineering, military science, and grand tactics using A Treatise on the Science of War and Fortification. Cadets were required to execute a series of drawings and plans connected with these subjects. The course began on September 1 of each year and ended on March 20.
  3. The second section was only taught field engineering using volume I and the appendix of A Treatise on the Science of War and Fortification. 
 The 1821 regulations indicate that the professor of engineering taught some of the sections himself. Instruction was divided among the professor of engineering and his assistants. The professor of engineering would occasionally instruct the sections entrusted to his assistants. This was done "to ascertain the proficiency of the sections entrusted immediately to the assistants and the manner in which they have performed their duty." 
 
In 1823, Professor David B. Douglass succeeded Professor Crozet, who resigned on April 28, 1823. Professor Douglass was appointed 2nd lieutenant, Corps of Engineers on August 1, 1813. He was assistant professor of natural and experimental philosophy from June 1, 1815, to August 29, 1820; as professor of mathematics from August 29, 1820 to May 1, 1823, and as professor of engineering from May 1, 1823, to March 1, 1831. During his tenure "the instruction in civil engineering was much improved."
 
Next: Professor Dennis H. Mahan's Tenure