Thursday, January 23, 2020

Author Q&A: Laurence Freiheit on "Major General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield"

Today we are joined by Larry Freiheit to talk about his 2019 book Major General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield: A Soldier From Beginning to End. It is his second major Civil War study (both with Camp Pope Publishing), the first being Boots and Saddles: Cavalry During the Maryland Campaign of September 1862, which is now in its second edition. Freiheit's Mansfield biography is a massive and beautifully illustrated tome that exhaustively examines the general's life and military career, both of which tragically ended on September 17, 1862 at the Battle of Antietam. 

CWBA: Hi, Larry. Clearly a great deal of lifeblood went into your 800-page biography of J.K.F. Mansfield. In addition to being a keen student of the Maryland Campaign and your shared Connecticut origins, what else inspired you to involve yourself so deeply in Mansfield’s life story?

LF: First, thank you for your “keen student” comment, I don’t deserve that. This sounds silly but when I first started looking at Mansfield in the late 1990’s I identified with him not only because I was about his age when he was mortally wounded and I had a full beard at the time but with his somewhat acerbic wit and Puritanical bent. After I wrote my Maryland Campaign cavalry book my research and contacts with the primary Mansfield expert in the U.S., Dr. Tom Clemens, provided an easy gateway to a book about one of my home state’s most famous generals. Tom provided extensive help with my draft due to his expertise concerning Mansfield and the Battle of Antietam as well as 19th century U.S. military history.

CWBA: After graduation from West Point and appointment to the prestigious U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Mansfield spent nearly three decades all told as a military engineer. What major construction projects did he oversee during that part of his army career?

LF: His most famous project was his decades-long involvement with the construction of Ft. Pulaski east of Savannah, Georgia. I visited the fort four times over the space of 20 years and talked with and received critical help from a ranger there, Michael Weinstein. He gave me access to hundreds of pages of documents about Mansfield’s involvement at the fort most importantly from Rogers W. Young, a Park Service employee. Young wrote extensively about the construction of Fort Pulaski and his research and writing are the most comprehensive available documents about Ft. Pulaski. His unpublished manuscripts, which include details from U.S. Army Engineering Department records, were the sources for his book A Connecticut Yankee on the Georgia Coast: The Engineering Epic of Fort Pulaski, 1821-1861 (subtitled “Being The Story of the Trials and Triumphs of Lieutenant, later Captain, Joseph K.F. Mansfield, United States Corps of Engineers, in the building of Fort Pulaski, on Cockspur Island, Savannah River, Georgia”) dated 1938. Ranger Weinstein copied the book for my use, which saved me countless hours at the National Archives.

While he was chief engineer for the fort Mansfield was also involved in many other projects since the Engineering Department allowed him to be absent during the summer “sickly months”. Most recognizable to readers would be his involvement with the National Road and help with projects such as assisting in the construction of Fort Hamilton, New York, and in the construction of the defenses of Hampton Roads, Virginia. He was in charge of Savannah River Improvement, Sullivan's Island Breakwater, South Carolina, and repairs to St. Augustine Seawall, Florida as well as improvement of Brunswick Harbor, Georgia. He was for about one year principal assistant at Fort Monroe and one year principal assistant at Fort Calhoun at the Rip Raps. While at Old Point Comfort Mansfield was detached and made a reconnaissance of the Pasquotank River from the Canal in the Dismal Swamp to Elizabeth City in North Carolina, and surveyed the bars.

CWBA: The Mexican-American War briefly interrupted his engineer work. What were the highlights of his service in that conflict?

LF: Mansfield served as Gen. Zachary Taylor’s chief engineer. His first important contribution to Taylor’s successes was the design and construction of what became Ft. Brown, Texas, across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, Mexico. After it was completed, he helped defend it when the Mexican Army attacked. Mansfield, while not in command of the fort, actively participated in its defense by leaving the fort one night to level a trench previously dug by U.S. Troops and by cutting down brush from which enemy snipers had been firing. An infantry officer in the fort wrote that “He is without doubt the soul of this little place and he is almost ubiquitous. He is without doubt of more service here than all the other officers put together.” Mansfield received a brevet to major for his actions.

But Mansfield’s most famous exploit was at the Battle of Monterrey, during which he was seriously wounded. Under Taylor’s orders, he was to show infantry units a way into the city. Taylor’s attack on Monterrey, a well-fortified city, was later viewed by some critics as ill-advised and unnecessary. Mansfield was praised by Lieutenant Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana: “That Mansfield is one of the most noble specimens of gallantry and heroism and chivalry I have ever met with. He is unacquainted with a feeling of fear and is persevering to death. After he was wounded, he tied a handkerchief round his leg and led the murderous charge on the enemy's works where the First and Third Divisions suffered so severely.” Mansfield received another brevet to lieutenant colonel for his bravery here. His flesh wound confined him to his bed for almost a month.

At the Battle of Buena Vista Mansfield again performed well, helping Taylor win his final major battle against the Mexican Army, this time commanded by Gen. Santa Anna. Here, Taylor was even more greatly outnumbered than he was in his previous battles, but, unlike before, most of his troops here were volunteers not regulars. Mansfield’s help was noted by Lt. John Pope in a tribute to all of Mansfield’s Mexican-American War exploits:
“I first saw him in action at the storming of Monterrey….I was one of the junior officers under him. We led the advance of the column which attacked and carried some of the fortifications on the lower part of the city. Of course Mansfield was wounded, shot through the calf of the leg; but he had it bound up, and the next I saw of him he was stretched out in a partly-reclining position behind a piece of artillery of Webster's battery, within open sight of the enemy's entrenchments, not 200 yards distant, and from which A TERRIFIC FIRE FROM ARTILLERY and small-arms was being poured upon the spot until the dust and dirt were flying in every direction. The place was too hot even for the gunners, and this one gun was served in person by Lieut. J.L. Donaldson, the First Lieutenant of the battery, who seemed as careless of his life as Mansfield. The latter was unable to walk on his wounded leg but was lying in the midst of this tremendous fire, in which it seemed impossible to live, with his field-glass to his eye, directing Donaldson where to aim his gun. Absolutely he seemed as unconscious of danger or as indifferent to it as if he had been walking the streets of Washington. I saw him again in battle under somewhat different circumstances at Buena Vista. Although still on General Taylor's staff, he did not go back with the General that night to Saltillo, but remained on the field with General Wool to help him select positions and post the troops for the next day's work. When we rode up on the plateau in the midst of a lost battle, as I have described, one of the first men I saw was General Mansfield. He rode a gray horse, which made him very conspicuous, and was charging furiously back and forth across the field, trying to rally the broken columns, but without success. He was beside himself with shame and humiliation, and the tears poured down his face. He was not tranquilized until the effects from Bragg's and Sherman's batteries became apparent. Mansfield had a keen military eye and most excellent military judgment, but he never afterward had the opportunity to exhibit them until the civil war, and he was killed, as it was almost certain he would be, in the first battle in which he was engaged.”
Pope’s 1891 encomium is a fitting tribute to Mansfield’s combat experiences during both the Mexican-American War and the U.S. Civil War.

CWBA: The nearly eight years Inspector General Mansfield spent conducting extensive inspection tours throughout the West are meticulously documented in your book. As a senior staff officer acting in this capacity, what impact did he have on the antebellum army?

LF: As one of the Army’s two inspector generals, his meticulous reviews of troops and posts mainly west of the Mississippi River focused on his main obsession that soldiers and the posts they manned were combat ready. He had no patience for Army regulations or policies which did not contribute to ensuring that men, equipment, animals, and facilities were prepared to perform the Army’s missions. His somewhat Puritanical bent also resulted in his repeated condemnations of alcohol abuse in many western posts. As a senior Army officer of over 30 years and a combat veteran, Col. Mansfield was keenly aware of what the Army had to do to prepare for the next war. Mansfield also paid attention to the care of enlisted men knowing that it was they who won or lost battles, so their quarters, food, medical care, and pay were among his priorities. His engineering background also allowed him to propose better locations for forts and champion better roads and even transcontinental railroads. In addition to the persistent alcohol problem at existed at almost every post he decried the lack of sufficient numbers of officers, especially at the company level, which affected soldier’s training and discipline. This lack of leadership at small western posts meant that troops were often not able to perform basic functions required of soldiers because officers were assigned to duties away from their companies. Those officers who remained had to perform extra duties to cover for missing comrades, so they could spend little time with their men. He also decried the general lack of marksmanship training, which the Army began to address some years later. In short, Mansfield simply wanted the Army to be ready to perform its duties ,and he was ready to criticize anyone or anything which prevented it from so doing.

CWBA: Mansfield commanded the Department of Washington during the first three months of the war and was in charge of the Washington city defenses for much of the second half of 1861. Was he a serious candidate for a major field command? What was his reaction to McDowell’s appointment to lead the army that would clash with the Confederates at First Bull Run?

LF: General Winfield Scott wanted Mansfield to lead the army in northern Virginia that confronted the Confederates at First Bull Run. Against Scott’s wishes, Pres. Lincoln appointed Brig. Gen. Irvin McDowell, who suffered from lack of cooperation from Mansfield and Scott in his efforts to form his army and move west to challenge the Confederates. Mansfield was angry that Lincoln chose his junior, McDowell, to command the Union Army of Northeastern Virginia instead of him. It is unfortunate that the old general’s disappointment may have led to his not being enthusiastic or punctilious about helping McDowell’s efforts in the summer of 1861 prior to the battle: “Regiments were slow in coming across the river to take their assigned places with the Army of Northeastern Virginia. Scott or Mansfield had to approve each such assignment, and they took their time about it. When McDowell went personally to Mansfield to ask for more men, and more speedily, Mansfield just shook his head and replied, ‘I have no transportation.’” Scott was not opposed to McDowell’s advancement as he was adjutant general on Scott’s staff during the Mexican-American War, but Scott wanted Mansfield to command the army in northern Virginia.

CWBA: Did Mansfield have any powerful political patrons or military high command supporters to back his ambitions?

LF: Mansfield had only Sec. of the Navy Gideon Welles in Lincoln’s cabinet more or less on his side, likely along with the State of Connecticut’s Congressional representatives. Scott favored Mansfield also but Mansfield had apparently only had lukewarm support from Welles. Welles did not find Mansfield to be more aggressive or creative than fellow West Pointers, as he expressed in his diary on 17 August 1862:
“A difficulty has existed from the beginning in the military, and I may say general management of the War…. General Scott was for a defensive policy, and the same causes which influenced him in that matter, [reinforcement of Norfolk, Virginia, which Welles championed and Scott denied] and the line of policy which he marked out, have governed the educated officers of the Army and to a great extend shaped the war measures of the Government. ‘We must erect our batteries on the eminences in the vicinity of Washington,' said General Mansfield to me, ‘and establish our military lines; frontiers between the belligerents, as between the countries of Continental Europe, are requisite.’ They were necessary in order to adapt and reconcile the theory and instruction of West Point to the war that was being prosecuted. We should, however, by this process become rapidly two hostile nations…. Instead of halting on the borders, building entrenchments, and repelling indiscriminately and treating as Rebels—enemies—all, Union as well as disunion, men in the insurrectionary region, we should, I thought, penetrate their territory, nourish and protect the Union sentiment, and create and strengthen a national feeling counter to Secession.”
Welles and many others including Lincoln believed, unlike Scott, Mansfield, and other experienced Army officers, that the war would be short and could be won quickly by aggressive action rather than a more planned, considered method. Welles would quickly be proved wrong but his early lack of strong support for Mansfield allowed McDowell to command the Union army which lost at First Bull Run.

McDowell found very active support from Sec. of the Treasury Chase, who clearly favored fellow Ohioans for positions as generals in the Army. McDowell, as assistant Adjutant General of the Army, was an early favorite of his, perhaps helped by a plan he submitted to Chase describing a Union deployment toward Manassas Junction. With Chase’s support, McDowell was put in command of the new Department of Northeastern Virginia. McDowell also had the support of Gov. William Dennison of Ohio. At a cabinet meeting in May 1861, Chase ensured that McDowell received a brigadier general's star although Chase wanted him to be a major general. Outside of the cabinet meeting, Chase spoke to McDowell who was surprised and chagrined that he might be made a major general ahead of senior officers, but he acquiesced in accepting a single star. Scott had plans for Mansfield and McDowell, but McDowell did not cooperate. Scott wanted Mansfield to remain in charge at Washington but did not want McDowell to command in northern Virginia. Scott tried unsuccessfully to get McDowell to refuse the command of the new Department of Northeastern Virginia, but the War Department placed McDowell in command at Lincoln’s urging. Mansfield expressed his disappointment in a letter to his wife: “I don’t feel exactly right about the manner I have been used. I should have been given a separate command in the place others assigned. I shall not forget this soon. They have allowed politics to interfere with my matters, and deprive me of my just position.

CWBA: What was Mansfield doing between the end of his run commanding the Washington defenses and his assignment to lead the army’s Twelfth Corps in mid-September?

LF: Mansfield reported to Fort Monroe on 1 October 1861 and met with Maj. Gen. John E. Wool, who sent him to Hatteras Inlet to bring order out of chaos at Union outposts on the North Carolina coast. There, Mansfield took command at Hatteras Inlet as Col. Rush C. Hawkins, commanding the 9th N.Y. Infantry, was relieved. General Wool held Hawkins responsible for the debacle in which the Union steam tug Fanny was surrendered, and for the “Chicamacomico Races” a few days later. Mansfield returned to Fort Monroe on 14 October and was in command of Camp Hamilton near Fort Monroe from 13 October to 24 November 1861, when he turned over command to Col. Max Weber and was ordered to relieve Brigadier General John W. Phelps at Newport News 24 November 1861. On 3 March 1862, Mansfield’s command was designated the First Brigade, First Division, Department of Virginia. Dix sent Mansfield to Suffolk with three regiments on 13 June 1862. But the most noteworthy adventure Mansfield had while in command at Newport News was related to the remarkable naval battle of the Civil War, the U.S.S. Monitor versus the C.S.S. Virginia (U.S.S. Merrimack). While the battle between the two ironclads took place on 9 March, Mansfield’s involvement was primarily the day before when the Virginia attacked Union blockaders in Hampton Roads. Mansfield ordered Union shore batteries and infantry to fire at Rebel ships and sailors as they approached the helpless U.S.S. Congress which had run aground and surrendered. He was heavily criticized by Confederates for continuing to fire after the Union ships had run up the white flag. He reportedly replied that: "I know the damned ship has surrendered…but we haven't." The Merrimack responded by firing at Mansfield’s camp: “The large shot passed entirely through the post hospital and the headquarters' building of General Mansfield, tearing down the chimney of the latter, and nearly burying that venerable officer in the ruins. He was, fortunately, but little hurt, and soon emerged from the house white with plaster.” Mansfield continued to bombard his superiors with requests to be assigned to command a unit in an active theater but to no avail. Maj. Gen. McClellan recognized Mansfield’s abilities and asked Sec. of War Stanton to place Mansfield in command of a division to be stationed at Ft. Monroe, but that did not happen. Mansfield had little use for either Wool or McClellan. Mansfield participated along with Lincoln and some of his cabinet in the capture of Norfolk in early May 1862. Perhaps reminding Lincoln of his abilities, on 8 September 1862 Mansfield was ordered north to join McClellan’s army near Washington, DC.

CWBA: Was Mansfield the administration’s first choice to command the newly-formed Twelfth Corps?

LF: I found nothing to show when or why Lincoln or Stanton decided to give Mansfield a command with McClellan. Perhaps the administration was running out of experienced generals who had not failed in command and were not McClellan sycophants. Lincoln was likely casting about for generals in the east who were not part of McClellan’s coterie, who had faithful and unblemished military service and were available. It was also very likely that Mansfield had come to Lincoln’s attention again when Lincoln was at Fort Monroe and Norfolk, and, of course, Lincoln knew Mansfield well when he was in command of Washington in 1861. Mansfield’s recent letters to generals and politicians ardently requesting combat service likely reminded Lincoln that Mansfield should be a general pushed forward as others fell away due to poor performance or for political reasons. And it may be that finally his entreaties to friends and acquaintances such as Welles, Chase, Thayer, Totten, etc., bore fruit. McClellan did not choose Mansfield to command the XII Corps but rather Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick. Sedgwick did not want the command and refused thereby allowing McClellan to place Mansfield in command of his smallest corps. There is no record why McClellan replaced his first selection with Mansfield. Possibly he learned from Washington that Mansfield was soon to arrive and receive a command so if Mansfield’s fellow Nutmegger, Sedgwick, did not wish to leave his division, McClellan was not going to force the issue--Mansfield would command his smallest corps. These Old Army men, all Mexican-American War veterans--McClellan, Mansfield and Sedgwick--were not going to squabble at this time when combat was imminent. McClellan was obviously too busy to spend much time on what he probably wound up seeing as a relatively minor matter.

CWBA: Unfortunately, Mansfield’s tenure as corps commander was measured in mere days. Can we glean anything from that very brief period that might tell us anything about Mansfield’s leadership style and high command fitness?

LF: As noted by John Pope, “Mansfield had a keen military eye and most excellent military judgment, but he never afterward had the opportunity to exhibit them until the civil war, and he was killed, as it was almost certain he would be, in the first battle in which he was engaged.” Although Mansfield had always been a staff officer, in the Mexican-American War he was in close combat and able to observe field commanders in action. Additionally, being on Gen. Taylor’s staff and interacting with him and other top commanders, he knew what had to be done at all levels in Taylor’s army. His tours of installations in the West showed him what good commanders could do in difficult situations. In the Mexican-American War, he and other Regular Army officers saw firsthand the good and bad qualities of volunteers so Mansfield’s efforts at Antietam concentrated on ensuring that his mostly volunteer troops were under close command. However, leading from the front often led to the death and wounding of general and field grade officers, but that obviously did not deter them from so doing. Mansfield, as Pope wrote, was perhaps too willing to expose himself and maybe should have been more cautious since he commanded a corps (and it was important to lead it for more than a few hours in the most important battle of the Civil War). Also Mansfield was in command of his corps for only a few days so did not know the abilities of his commanders and the capabilities of his regiments, so in leading them into battle he was perhaps overly cautious. Had he lived I believe that he would have been one of Lincoln’s better generals—aggressive but not overly so and willing to obey orders. His other potential weakness was his fondness for his enlisted men, but there is nothing in his record to show that he would not send them into battle because many would be killed or wounded. As an Old Army soldier his foremost desire was to accomplish his assigned mission.

CWBA: In your opinion, has the battle’s traditional historical narrative gotten anything significantly wrong about how the general conducted himself at Antietam?

LF: Most historians spend little time on Mansfield at Antietam, justifiably so as he was wounded early in the battle and his influence was minimal. Since he was only in command of his corps for a few days he had little impact on its battle worthiness. Historians focus on Brig. Gen. Alpheus Williams’s comments about that morning; he described Mansfield as “an excellent gentleman, but a most fussy, obstinate officer.” Mansfield rode ahead to assess the situation and while he was gone, Williams saw that his division’s regiments were not deployed into line to meet the close-by enemy. Williams ordered his leading brigade, Crawford’s, to deploy, but Mansfield, upon returning, disagreed. The new corps commander was adamant about marching his troops to Hooker’s aid in formation of columns to maintain better control of his inexperienced troops, however, Williams did not agree: “I had five new regiments without drill or discipline. General Mansfield was greatly excited. Though an officer of acknowledged gallantry, he had a very nervous temperament and a very impatient manner. Feeling that our heavy masses of raw troops were sadly exposed, I begged him to let me deploy them in line of battle, in which the men present but two ranks or rows instead of twenty, as we were marching, but I could not move him. He was positive that all the new regiments would run away.” Mansfield’s experience with green volunteers clearly affected his view of how he should employ his regiments. Williams knew more about these regiments as he was in temporary command until Mansfield was assigned, so perhaps he might have trusted Williams’s judgement more. It is clear, however, based upon his combat experience and best judgement, that he proceeded as he thought best and his lack of fear of being in the line of fire sealed his fate. Historian Bruce Catton wrote a fitting summary for the old general’s efforts that day: “He had had the corps only two days, but he had already made the soldiers like and respect him; it seems likely that he might have made quite a name if he had been spared.

CWBA: Are there any lingering questions about his mortal wounding that your book attempts to answer?

LF: The controversies after the battle and after the end of the war revolved around who shot Mansfield and where Mansfield was when he was shot. John Mead Gould was the 10th Maine’s regiment’s historian and a participant at Antietam as a first lieutenant in Co. E, and the Adjutant of 10th Maine. He became an authority for the 10th Maine’s activities and collaborated with Antietam expert Ezra Carman for details of actions on that part of the field especially concerning Mansfield. Gould first recorded in his diary the circumstances of Mansfield’s wounding and later spent much time and effort to ensure that his recollection prevailed over all the others, especially the 125th Pennsylvania. Gould, having convinced Carman and most other veterans that Mansfield was wounded in front of the 10th Maine, determined after corresponding with Confederate veterans that the 21st Georgia were the ones most likely to have shot Mansfield although he admitted that units of the 5th Texas and 4th Alabama were mixed in. Today most historians agree with Gould and Carmen that Mansfield was near the 10th Maine when he was shot despite the believable claims of the 125th Pennsylvania location advocates. I have to agree with Gould and Carmen as they have the weight of the evidence. Dr. Tom Clemens believes that the Pennsylvanians witnessed another officer shot who resembled Mansfield thereby engendering the controversy.

CWBA: Finally, how would you summarize Mansfield’s Civil War legacy?

LF: Mansfield spent his entire life from age 13 in the U.S. Army, entering West Point at that age. He was a true soldier of the Old Army. His contribution to the Union Civil War effort was small but in every action or activity he did well, except arguably his last day on 17 September 1862 at Antietam. Perhaps his inspection of military posts as an Inspector General influenced the pre-war Army to have more company level officers available with their troops and ensure that enlisted men were adequately cared for and trained by their officers. So his Civil War influence started years before the war began. During the war his troops universally admired him, often commenting on his willingness to look after their well-being. He did well in command of Washington helping take parts of northern Virginia from the Confederates. His efforts during the Monitor-Merrimack battle showed that he was willing to bend rules to help his comrades in the Navy. He was a driven officer who did not suffer fools gladly. As he did not survive Antietam, his future as a Civil War commander is only speculative, but I believe that he would have been one of Lincoln’s best generals.

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