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.

"A Fresh Battlefield is a Painfully Interesting Sight..."

"The historian is the traveler, the past is his country---but he must get his material, not from personal observation, but from the writings of those who lived then and who were actors in the events"---Wm. W.B.

William W. Blackford

Captain WW Blackford was born in Fredericksburg, VA on March 23, 1831. During the ages 11-14, Blackford lived in Bogata, New Granada where his father served as charge´ d' affaires. He learned Spanish and perhaps developed his later flair for the big mustache. (1)

Upon returning to Virginia in 1845, Blackford moved to Lynchburg. While residing there, he worked on railroad construction survey crews. Blackford saved enough money to study engineering at the University of Virginia, which gained him employment as a civil engineer during the construction of the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. Blackford was acting chief engineer when the railroad was completed in 1856. (2)

Blackford organized the Washington Mounted Rifles in response to John Brown's Raid at Harpers Ferry in 1859. Elected Lieutenant, Blackford entered this company into Confederate service as part of the 1st VA Cavalry in July 1861. Blackford served as JEB Stuart's aide-de-camp and was promoted to Captain in October 1861. His engineering expertise was utilized during the summer of 1862 when he supervised pontoon bridge construction over the James River. (3)

Being attached to Stuart provided Blackford with the opportunity of viewing a battlefield before and after it was a battlefield. Unlike infantry and artillery, cavalry was one large moving vehicle that roamed the countryside. Blackford used this freedom to study battlefields after the fighting died in order to learn lessons from the battlefield. He stated "I made it a point throughout the war, whenever praticable, to ride over the battlefields immediately after the firing ceased, and acquired much valuable information in this way."(4)

What type of information could be gleaned while sifting through the human wreckage on a field? According to Blackford, everything! Blackford wrote "a battlefield immediately after a battle is always an interesting and instructive study for a soldier. There is to be seen, by the results, the relative strength of positions, and the effect of fire; and nothing cultivates the judgment of topography, in relation to the strategic strength of the position, so well as to ride over the ground while the dead and wounded still remain as they fell. You see exactly where the best effects were produced, and what arm of the service produced them...artillery tears its sheaves out by the roots and scatters the fragments, while infantry mows them down in well heaped windrows." Macabre sightseeing, yes, but this bloody tour offered crucial nuggets to future tactical planning. (5)

On the opposite side of time, Blackford performed many reconnaissances and gave accurate reports to Stuart prior to a battle. Typically, Blackford would take three mounted men and push as close as possible to the Union lines without being detected. He and two men would dismount while the third held the horses and they would use "all cover and inequalities of the ground, until a good view of the enemy could be had from some commanding point." I wonder if John Buford stole this classic defense-in-depth tactic from Blackford. (6)

Stuart so greatly valued the work performed by Blackford during the Seven Days' Battles that in his report he stated "Capt. Wm. W. Blackford of the Engineers...was always in advance, obtaining valuable information of the enemy's strength, movements and position, locating routes and making hurried but accurate topographical sketches. He is bold in reconnaissance, fearless in danger, and remarkably cool and correct in judgment. His services are invaluable to the advance guard of the army." Although I tend to dismiss Stuart's opinions frequently, I will agree with him this time. (7)

Sketch of McClelland's [sic] position July 7th, 1862

Although Blackford was already the Chief Engineer on Stuart's staff, he did not receive the proper engineer equipment until Stuart was promoted to Major General in late July 1862. Blackford was issued equipment for making maps and tubes for preserving them as well as a wagon, driver, and horses. (8)

On September 16, Lee tasked Stuart with finding out whether it was the enemy's cavalry or infantry that were appearing on the field near the Confederate left flank. Stuart sent Blackford to perform  this reconnaissance. Blackford set out with his three men and "field glass of unusual size and power." I would like to see this amazing field glass. When the party reached a piece of high ground it dismounted and crawled to about 150 yards from the enemy skirmish line. Initially, Blackford was unable to decipher what branch of service was on the field because the enemy remained hidden behind trees and bushes. However, with his super field glass, Blackford brought into view "the blue trimmings and bayonet scabbards of the infantry soldier and not the yellow of the cavalry." On the 17th, the horse artillery was used but the cavalry was not so Blackford remained posted near the Potomac River. On the evening of the 18th, Stuart told Blackford to "examine the Potomac River in our rear above the regular ford near Shepherdstown, and find, if possible, a ford by which cavalry could cross...that if such a crossing could be found, to place some men at it and station a line of men at intervals of a couple of hundred yards along the route leading to the place so that I could guide a column of cavalry to it in the dark without fail...I found a crossing just below a fish trap where a shallow dam had been built". Later that night, the Confederate army crossed the Potomac back into Virginia at Shepherdstown Ford while Blackford led the cavalry to the fish dam where it too crossed. (9)

Blackford remained with Stuart until January 1864 at which time he was ordered to report to Richmond and appointed Major of the 1st Regiment of Engineers. Although he regretted leaving Stuart, he was now surrounded by fellow civil engineers (Blackford had enormous disdain towards West Point engineers and called them "manufactured soldiers") and enjoyed his work acting as a builder, sapper, miner, etc, until he surrendered at Appomattox. (10)

William W. Blackford
After the war, Blackford worked as an engineer for various railroad companies and as a professor. He wrote his memoirs in the 1890s and experimented with artificially fattening oysters. He died in 1905. (11)

2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. War Years With JEB Stuart by William Willis Blackford, 1993. Pg 44.
5. Ibid Pg 44.
6. Ibid Pg 83.
7. Ibid Pg 85.
8. Ibid Pg 88-89.
9. Ibid Pg 149, 152-153.
10. Ibid Pg 249.