Sunday, June 23, 2013

"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.

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