Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Same Signal Knob, Different View

Consider this drawing:

This scene took place on October 17th, 1864, just about 154 years to the day before Shira and I stood in the same location on Signal Knob. While Shira and I admired the tranquil views of the valley, Major General John B. Gordon and Jedediah Hotchkiss had an altogether different perspective. They were staring down at 34,000 enemy soldiers and pondering how a force less than half their size could defeat them.

Their assessment: we can take them. And so they did, two days later in the Battle of Cedar Creek.

After an audacious night march, Early’s troops forded the North Fork of the Shenandoah River and attacked the Yankees near Cedar Creek. The thick morning fog did much to aid the smaller Confederate force, concealing their numbers and causing confusion in the Federal ranks. The Southerners drove first one, then another, then a third Union Corps from their camps near Cedar Creek, across Belle Grove plantation, then north of Middletown. As the sun came up, it looked as if the Confederates had won an astounding victory.

It was a short won victory, however, lasting about 12 hours:

Meanwhile, word of the battle reached Sheridan, who was 20 miles away at Winchester. The diminutive Union chief saddled his prize horse, Rienzi, and rode furiously to the battlefield, rallying stragglers along the way. His arrival restored the spirits of his beleaguered troops who, Sheridan said, would be back in their camps by nightfall. Around 4:00 PM, the reorganized Federal host launched a savage counterattack for which Early’s men were ill-prepared and from which they could not recover. In the course of an afternoon, the Confederates were forced to yield the very ground they had captured scarcely twelve hours before. As the sun set over the Alleghenies, the Federals had not only regained the ground they lost, but had also extinguished any hope of further Confederate offensives in the Shenandoah Valley.

Still, what must it have been like to stand on Signal Knob, see a massive healthy force and see a tactical solution to defeating them?

The man in the drawing with the sketchbook is almost certainly Jedediah Hotchkiss. While Hotchkiss starts the war as a civilian teacher, he eventually becomes one of the Confederacy's most important weapons. His superpower: map making.

one of the Civil War’s most famous mapmakers, Jedediah Hotchkiss, was attached as topographical engineer on Confederate general Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's staff, providing accurate maps that many historians believe played a central role in the success of Jackson's 1862 Valley Campaign.
There were very few maps for Hotchkiss to use as a base for his own work, and he usually rode out on horseback to survey the land himself. The Hotchkiss-Jackson collaboration bred success, for the general's lightning strikes depended heavily on making the most of the terrain. After Jackson’s death in 1863, Hotchkiss continued as a topographical engineer with the Confederate forces, frequently working personally for Gen. Robert E. Lee, but also traveling to Gettysburg with Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, and later serving under Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, where one of his maps enabled the surprise Confederate assault at Cedar Creek in October 1864.

The Library of Congress hosts many documents and maps from Hotchkiss. My favorite so far is his personal sketchbook. The sketchbook includes this note on the front:

This volume is my field sketch book that I used during the Civil War. Most of the sketches were made on horseback just as they now appear. The colored pencils used were kept in the places fixed on the outside of the other cover. These topographical sketches were often used in conferences with Generals Jackson, Ewell and Early. The cover of this book is a blank Federal commission found in Gen. Milroy's quarters at Winchester, Jed. Hotchkiss

The sketches and notes in the margin are delightful. Using little more than colored pencils (and perhaps a straight edge?), he's created an impressive array of field expedient maps. They're part data, part artist creation. They're sort of terse visual poems that tell a story in a novel way. Man I love a well used notebook.

Here's a smattering of examples:

And so I close out this post with a challenge: I want to flip through Hotchkiss's sketchbook, but the Library of Congress site is too cumbersome to browse the entire collection. It's great for looking at a page here or there, but I really want to experience this as Hotchkiss did, as a handheld volume. So what's the best way to do this? Stay tuned, and find out

Update: See the answer to this challenge here.

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