Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Stackpole on Averell

The following quotes are from Sheridan in the Shenandoah by Edward J. Stackpole:

Page 35: "General Crook's subsequent account of Hunter's campaign referred in scathing terms to the ineffective service of Averell's cavalry during this period. It seems that Hunter on approaching Lexington from the north had sent Averell to cross black River higher up, to come in on the rear of the VMI cadet battalion that was opposing the Union advance. This Averell failed to do, allowing the cadets to escape to Lynchburg. . ."

Page 88: ". . . Crook's autobiography covering this period makes scornful reference to the part played by Sullivan's division and Averell's cavalry, accusing the former of all the shortcomings in the book, including physical cowardice, and stating that the cavalry was of little assistance, with its commander getting drunk during the fighting."

Page 91-102: "Averell's division, number about 2,500 men, arrived at Greencastle at dusk and went into bivouac at the very hour that McCausland was completing his march on Chambersburg; an action that served rather well to confirm the inadequacy of Averell as a cavalry commander. He had repeatedly demonstrated that he was dilatory in obeying orders, slow to react when speed and aggressiveness would have paid off in Union successes, and entirely too ready to avoid combat or to press matters to a conclusion, once committed to action. This he had proven in his fight with Fitz Lee on the Rappahannock prior to the Chancellorsville campaign and again int he course of the campaign. Crook was disgusted with his apparent indifference to his responsibilities during the recent skirmishes with Early in the Valley. The people of Chambersburg would very shortly blame him for dereliction of duty, in the conviction that he could have saved their community from destruction, but was too lethargic to stir himself in their defense. Finally, within a matter of months, Averell's performance in the Valley would be such that General Sheridan, who demanded efficient and bold service from his generals, would peremptorily relieve him from command."

". . . on July 29 [General] Couch had in Chambersburg nothing but one section of a field artillery battery, while the only other armed force in the entire Cumberland Valley that remained subject to his orders was a company of infantry with a strength of but 106 men . . . [he expected] Averell's cavalry would ride in to its defense in response to his repeated telegrams. . . When Averell failed to respond, Couch made the decision to remove himself and the handful of guns from Chambersburg to avoid certain capture . . ."

". . . there was a definite lack of rapport between Hunter and Averell, the former blaming the latter for the failure to take Lynchburg: 'I should certainly have taken it,' Hunter had written to Grant, 'if it had not been for the stupidity and conceit of that fellow Averell, who unfortunately joined me at Staunton, and of whom I unfortunately had at the time a very high opinion, and trusted him when I should not have done so."

". . . Averell's unheroic attitude and the damning implications that he could have prevented the rape of Chambersburg are related in letters from two reliable citizens addressed to Jacob Hoke, a resident of that community, who wrote and published a painstakingly researched book on Lee's Gettysburg campaign." [The letters are quoted by Stackpole, but too long to quote here.]

Page 165: "The rearward march of the three Federal corps of Wright, Emory, and Crook was ably covered by the cavalry divisions of Merritt and Wilson, the latter having reported to Sheridan from Grant's army on August 17. Averell, who rarely moved quickly, did not reach the army from West Virginia until Sheridan's new line was stabilized north of Charlestown some days later. . . ."

Page 258: ". . . [Sheridan was] . . . frustrated and angered by the indifference to orders and disinclination to fight displayed by General Averell, whose cavalry division had been placed in a position at Fisher's Hill from which it was expected to execute the historic role of cavalry in the pursuit and exploitation of a retreating foe.

"A review of Averell's military record during the Civil War is cause for wonder that he lasted as long as he did as a cavalry division commander. Perhaps it would be generous to state that he lacked the fighting heart that marks the true cavalry leader, and let it go at that. That he was agile-minded in composing his official reports is evident from reading his accounts; there always seemed to be sound reasons for not accomplishing his assigned missions, and he never failed to elaborate at great length. The fact remained, however, that more times than not his division failed to reach the scene of action until after the need for its presence had passed and the enemy had concluded his immediate operations.

"General Sheridan reached Woodstock early on the morning of September 23 in the company with advance elements of his infantry, expecting to find that Averell's division had been in hot pursuit of the routed Confederates and that the cavalry general would have a glowing report to submit. But Averell wasn't there and no one seemed to know where he was. . . About noon Averell's division showed up, having taken time out for a good night's rest, followed by a leisurely jaunt over the few miles of road between Fisher's Hill and Woodstock. Sheridan minced no words in upbraiding Averell, and immediately sent him packing after Devin, who had run up against rear-guard opposition at Mount Jackson, but still was making progress despite his small force. It wasn't long after Averell had joined Devin and assumed command of the combined forces that Sheridan received a message from him to the effect that a signal officer had advised him that 'a brigade or division of the enemy was turning his flank' and that he thought it prudent to withdraw his division. Sheridan sent back word that Averell should not let the Confederates bluff him so easily; then, thinking it over, he decided he had had enough of that inferior kind of leadership, and dashed off a Special Order that relieved Averell from command and ordered him to Wheeling to await further orders. Colonel William H. Powell was assigned to command of the First Cavalry Division in the same order that brought to an end the military career of the disgruntled William W. Averell."

Page 261-2: It had been "Averell's job to harry and slow down the retreating Confederates with his cavalry division, and by unremitting pressure against the enemy rear guard to force Early's tired infantry to deploy and redeploy constantly. He failed abjectly in carrying out that mission. Seldom had such an opportunity fallen to the lot of the Union cavalry -- the sort of thing to which horse troops were ideally suited -- and Averell had muffed it badly, losing his command as indeed he should have. . ."

Comment: While two biographies do not comprise evidence beyond all dispute, these two (Stackpole's & Morris's), written about 40 years apart, were developed by historians delving into the primary evidence (note for example that Stackpole seems to have read all of Averell's official reports) and while these historians do not describe the events pertaining to Averell's performance and firing in quite the same words, there is no essential disagreement.

There seems to be a phalanx of anti-Sheridan emotion at work in modern historiography today; which makes an examination of its salient points interesting, but in this particular case, the "case" against Sheridan for unjustly firing Averell, I have seen no substantiating evidence.

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