Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tidball, the Tall Cool One.

John C. Tidball was born January 25, 1825 near Wheeling, VA (currently WV). From that day on, he had a very interesting life and his existence gives me the chance to cover three topics that I especially like. Therefore, Tidball rates very highly on my list of cool Civil War guys.

John C. Tidball

Cool topic #1. Tidball graduated from West Point in 1848. Although he entered the artillery branch of the army, it was his time at West Point that allowed him to witness and comment on the deification of the Engineer at West Point. Engineers are cool. The god-to-heathen hierarchy scale was as follows-- Engineer, Topographical Engineer, Ordnance, Artillery, Infantry, Dragoon and Mounted Rifle. Tidball amusingly noted "this scale, the result of profound analysis by the engineering corps, which had controlled the academy from its infancy, was supposed to represent the brain requirement for each branch. We were taught with every breath we drew at West Point the utmost reverence for the scale; consequently it becomes a kind of fixture in our minds that the engineers were a species of gods, next to which came the 'topogs', or as they were sometimes styled, the apocryphal engineers, only a grade below the first, but still a grade--- they were but demi-gods. Then came the ordnance, a sort of connecting link between the deities and ordinary mortals, that is between the two higher orders and the line, but still above the latter. The line was simply the line, whether of horse, foot, or dragoons. The academic board did, it is true, draw a slight distinction, giving preference to the artillery and placing the dragoons last. For the latter a good square seat for the saddle was deemed of more importance than brains." (1) 

Cool topic #2. In September 1854 Tidball was ordered to Washington DC to become a part of the Coast Survey. The Coast Survey is extremely cool. The Coast Survey was founded in 1807 by Congress and Thomas Jefferson. The agency was founded "as a geodetic survey, designed to create a coastal geodetic triangulation network of stations, occasional carefully measured baselines, and geographic positions based on astronomical observations... [it] was a civilian agency but, from the beginning, officers and men from the US Navy and US Army were detailed to service with the Survey... in general, Army officers worked on topographic surveys on the land and related maps based on the surveys, while Navy officers in general worked on hydrographic surveys in coastal waters." Superintendent Professor Alexander Bache (great grandson of Benjamin Franklin) ordered Tidball to prepare a Congress Map. This was no ordinary map, it was mandated by a special act of Congress. Tidball determined "the object of the map was to show to congressmen at a glance the different stages of progress of the various operations of the survey, from reconnaissances for projected field work to completed charts." Tidball had never performed work like this before but his "composition" met Bache's high standards and it appeared in Bache's Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey Showing the Progress of the Survey during the Year of 1854 as Appendix No. 32 Description of the Congress Map, by Lt JC Tidball, USA, Assistant in Coast Survey (Pgs *61-63). (2)

Cool topic #3. Tidball fought at Antietam. Beyond cool. At some other time I will comment on Tidball's performance at Antietam. For now, I am more concerned with commenting on his performance in the aftermath of Antietam. Tidball was not pleased with the way his horse artillery was deployed during the battle. Not included in his official report to Pleasanton, Tidball wrote an analysis of deficiencies he observed and sent it to Artillery Chief Henry Hunt. He stated "the use of horse batteries being a new thing in our service, does not appear to be very well comprehended by those in whose command they most frequently are assigned... the duties assigned to these batteries at the battle of Antietam could have been performed as well by any other batteries, several of which were close by, unemployed. This would have left the horse batteries free for rapid movement to any parts of the field where a concentration of artillery was hastily required...[to give] a complete instead of Cadmean victory." Tidball was no fan of Pleasanton and the cavalry either. He felt the "saber-swinging dragoons" failed to support the horse artillery. In his analysis he further stated the cavalry was "not armed properly for the support of batteries...[and that] cavalry, for operating with horse artillery, should be armed with muskets or rifles of long range and should dismount and fight as infantry, their horses being used only for locomotion. As it soon as the enemy opens fire the cavalry find themselves of no service and very properly retire. This, when there is no infantry at hand, leaves the batteries at the mercy of any uprising party of the enemy." Although only ranked as a Captain, Tidball was intelligent enough to identify these tactical flaws employed by his superiors and then offer an analytical report to which he flushed out the poor tactics and offered new methods. Ironically, John Buford's employment of dismounted cavalry on July 1 at Gettysburg is renown and Buford has received oodles of praise over the years. (3)


1. No Disgrace to my Country: The Life of John C Tidball by Eugene C Tidball, 2002. Pg 51.
2. Tidball pgs 147-149.
The US Coast Survey during the Civil War by John St Cloud, 2011. Pgs 5,6.
3. Tidball pgs 268-269.