A Melancholy Affair at the Weldon Railroad: The Vermont Brigade, June 23, 1864, by David Faris Cross. Illustrated, maps, prisoner roster, endnotes, bibliography, index, 267 pp., 2003. White Mane Books, P.O. Box 708, Shippensburg, PA 17257-0708, $29.95.
The fabled Vermont Brigade, 2nd Brigade, 2nd Division, VI Corps, Army of the Potomac, according to military historian George G. Benedict, was "often put in where the hardest fighting was to be done… stayed when others fled, and … did not know when they were beaten-if they ever were beaten." Sixth Corps Adjutant General and Chief of Staff, General Martin T. McMahon, opined that "no body of troops in or out of the old Sixth corps had a better record." The chronology of battles that the brigade engaged in ran from Lee's Mill, in April, 1862, to Sailor's Creek, in April, 1865. Their valiant efforts include sanguinary battles at Savage's Station, Antietam, Marye's Heights, Fredericksburg, the Wilderness, Spottsylvania, Cold Harbor, the entire Shenandoah Valley campaign, the final assault on Petersburg, and many others. General McMahon, again, said of the brigade, "they were individually self-reliant and skilful in the use of arms, and they honestly believed that The Vermont Brigade could not be beaten by the combined armies of the rebellion." And that, quite possibly, was true; except for "Black Thursday."
In June, 1864, as the bloody Overland Campaign came to a close and what would be a protracted Petersburg Campaign started, a relatively small skirmish occurred as the Army of the Potomac tried to extend its investment of Petersburg and cut the supply links to the Confederate capital.
Just days after Lee's Army of Northern Virginia arrived in the area to face and stalemate Meade's Army, the II and VI Corps were assigned the task of cutting off the railroad lines coming into the city from the south. The Third Division of VI Corps took up a position on the left flank of the Union army; the Vermont Brigade occupied the extreme left flank, just to the left of the Third Division.
The entire brigade was not involved in the 'incident,' much to the dismay of its recently promoted commander, Brigadier General Lewis Addison Grant, just the Fourth and Eleventh Infantry Regiments. The Fourth was already a veteran member of the brigade, having participated in 18 major battles since the beginning of the war. The Eleventh, a relative newcomer to the brigade, had only been in the field five weeks. At Weldon Railroad, on Thursday, June 23, 1864, due to incompetence, cowardice and petty squabbling about relative rank from their own officers and others up the chain of command, these two regiments suffered 454 casualties, 27 killed or mortally wounded, 20 wounded, and 407 taken prisoner.
At every level in the chain of command at and above the two regiments, with the notable exception of L. A. Grant, there is some degree of culpability for the disaster. Dr. Cross's well documented argument lays out in detail the shortcomings in leadership displayed on this day, leading to the capture of these men without even the slightest attempt at withdrawing them from their exposed position, or bringing in sufficient troops to support them.
Dr. Cross says this book was 'satisfying a curiosity' he had about the incident. Thankfully, it wasn't idle curiosity. He has produced a substantive analysis of one of the most significant events in Vermont's participation in the Rebellion. It is both enlightening and disturbing at the same time. Enlightening in that it penetrates the veneer of diplomacy and discretion that frequently cripples much post-war 19th century literature, and brings to light period manuscripts that prove every step of his analysis. It is disturbing in that it takes the reader beyond the not-particularly-revealing and impersonal statistics of casualties (i.e., so many killed or mortally wounded, … wounded, … missing), and traces nearly every single soldier from the point of his capture, through the suffering and deprivations of prison life, to his final resting place.
Dr. Cross's laudable effort makes this book a MUST READ!
There are several other 'incidents' begging for the same treatment; the Fifth Vermont at Savage's Station, the Eighth Vermont at Cedar Creek, the entire brigade at Marye's Heights to name but a few. Is there someone out there willing to take these on?
Tom Ledoux is the creator and webmaster of the Vermont in the Civil War website, VermontCivilWar.org. He has an M.A. in military studies (Civil War studies) from American Military University, and was the 2002 Recipient of the Vermont Civil War Council's "Full Duty Award."
Dr. Cross's book is available from