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PRELUDE TO The Western Campaign, Chapter II, "My Maryland"

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PRELUDE TO The Western Campaign, Chapter II, "My Maryland"

Post  Father General on Mon Feb 04, 2013 6:48 am

There was no fanfare when the news arrived. The Confederate War Department simply issued the promotion as a matter of course. Their investigation complete, it was determined that Maj. General Hebert was sent with insufficient men and material to resist a more powerful, and ruthless Union foe.

Hebert was therefore promoted to the rank of Lt. General and made commander-in-chief of the Confederate forces in the Shenandoah. However, he was also kept in Richmond and was not permitted to interfere with the wintering of the troops in the valley. It was all because of politics.

Political machinations that kept the Father General in immediate command.

General Neal, the preacher, turned militia captain, then turned general, was hard at work in the valley imposing his brand of discipline on an entire Confederate corps. This was possible because the governors of Mississippi and Georgia both ensured he retained his command.

The Governor of Mississippi was a personal friend and admirer of the Father General and he sent extra supplies to the Richmond to ensure those in charge stayed in his political debt. Meanwhile, General Neal’s grandfather happened to be one of the largest planters in all Georgia, so those political connections also served Neal.

With a free hand to do pretty much as he pleased in the valley, the Father General set to work.

Restrained from attacking, Neal did what he did best, which was drill the troops in maneuvers and harangue the officers until they were beaten down with his bullying. Religious indoctrination was followed closely by harsh military discipline. When those did not work, Neal had “special assignments” that were so impossible that they typically gave him reason to dismiss officers he deemed to be either poor, weak, disgruntled, or “morally unfit for command.”

Of course, the officers were by no means silent. War Department staff, including Lt. General Hebert, gritted their teeth each time a new complaint arrived, usually at the rate of one every couple days or so. Those officers who could get a new assignment away from the valley did. The others simply had to bear their crosses.

At first, the barrage of abuse suffered by the men caused them to give General Neal a catholic sobriquet, calling him the “Father General.” The name was intended to be a slight, to suggest he was a papist. The name caught on like a wildfire and soon every man whispered it behind his back.

Eventually he learned of the nickname, but surprisingly did nothing about it. After it slipped a few times around campfires he attended, the men grew comfortable using it around him. Eventually, they called him Father General to his face, and he never once corrected the officers who spoke thus. It was an ironic reaction to a man who had disciplined every other infraction with iron punishment.

The same time General Hebert was being promoted to Lt. General, the orders arrived making Neal a Major General. This would have caused an officer’s mutiny a month prior, but between August and September, a change began to take hold in the Army of Western Virginia.

The Father General imposed his iron will on the men, making them drill incessantly. He was particularly fond of bayonet and marksmanship training. So much in fact, that Hebert asked him to stop “wasting” so much ammunition. The corps consumed ammunition at about the same rate as an army on campaign and it placed a tremendous strain on the resources of the Confederacy.

To satisfy Hebert, Neal’s political supporters sent both money and ammunition in moderate doses which helped to pacify the Hebert and the War Department.

By the end of September, the complaints slowed to a trickle, and by October they simply stopped arriving. The Father General was gaining respect, despite his initially brutal officer’s purge. Those officers who remained were lavished with promotions. Soon every colonel who commanded a brigade was made into a proper brigadier.

The Father General won respect because as fall turned into winter, the men and officers observed that he was a tireless taskmaster who was everywhere at once. He was hard to miss, wearing a non-regulation all-white uniform trimmed with gold. The uniform was a gift from the Governor of Mississippi and came in triplicate to ensure he would always have a spotless one to wear on all occasions. Astride his white horse, the Father General rode up and down between the camps like a planter overseeing his production.

Under his direction, green novices became strong and supple warriors, equally capable on the march as well as in formation. Barefoot soldiers toughed up enough to march macadamized roads barefoot, and in incredible time.

This was evident when the War Department sent an attaché on an unannounced visit to inspect Neal’s command. The reason for the visit was to ascertain what he was really doing, and to see if a reason to sack him could be discerned. Neal was never popular in Richmond.

The attaché arrived in the evening, and although the Father General was surprised, he received him with his customary strict, aloof demeanor. There were only the barest of pleasantries passed before the Father General presented him with an order of battle and asked him to choose a regiment, any regiment.

The attaché selected one that happened to be garrisoned a day’s march to the south. The hour was near midnight, but the Father General fired a swift telegram down the pike.

At dawn, the Father General aroused the unfortunate attaché just before 6 a.m. and compelled him to ride to the edge of town. There, approaching in the distance, was the regiment he had selected. He observed that many men were barefoot and their uniforms quite shabby from wear. Nonetheless, every rifle sparkled in the dewy sunrise.

Arriving at a field-turned parade ground, the regiment, upon orders from Neal, executed a series of sophisticated maneuvers and bayonet drills that would impress any observer. As clearly exhausted men performed in a sadistic martial ballet, engineers quickly planted wooden planks at one end of the field.

Once they cleared away, the unlucky regiment which had been forced-marched in the cold during the small hours of the morning, wheeled and faced the plank army at a range of about 200 yards. In precise, fluid movements, the regiment fired three volleys into the planks. Within 60 seconds, every plank was shattered by at least two or three minie balls apiece.

The attaché was both impressed and terrified, and he departed soon after to make his report. It was surprisingly favorable despite declaring the Father General to be one-third preacher, one-third officer, and one-third demon.

And so it was that the Army of Western Virginia became one of the finest fighting forces in the Confederacy, even before the spring thaw began.

By mid-February, the Father General had marched a full one-half of his command just out of sight of Harper’s Ferry. Each day, unlucky officers were selected to march with their men, just close enough to the town’s defenses to draw long-range artillery fire. This was to “prepare the men for the din of war,” or so he said. In reality, he was taking careful notes of the enemy responses. Scouts secretly recorded the enemy’s positions.

Armed with solid intel, the Father General asked for permission to attack. Yet, when he presented his plan, it lacked any kind of sophistication, exposing the general’s weakness.

You see, the Father General was a superb drillmaster, but he was a poor tactician. The proposal was so bad, it nearly brought Hebert to tears. If the men were so fine and capable as reports suggested, what a waste it should be to let General Neal throw them away on a direct, frontal assault against enemy fortifications.

Finally, Hebert had the evidence he needed to remove the Father General from his command. But the question lingered – would it be enough?

**

Meanwhile, Major General Georgia had problems of his own. They started when he was pulled away from an imminent victory in the Shenandoah. Confined to Harper’s Ferry, his problems continued as his growing list of enemies and rivals criticized him for the arrival of wagon loads of silverware and other finery in Washington, ahead of ambulances hauling the wounded.

He was promoted to Lt. General and placed in command of a wide department covering Western Maryland and parts of Pennsylvania. The Department of Maryland, it was called. Georgia found the name rather uninspiring.

Maryland was a needy state. Half-filled with rabid secessionists and Copperheads, as the Confederate sympathizers were called, he was worried that he might soon face rebellion in his rear as well as the Father General to his front.

In fact, Lt. Gen. Georgia was quite amused to see the Father General commanding to his front and massed his artillery accordingly. Every day, the eccentric general sent troops within range of his guns, giving his gunners target practice. Though they almost always missed, it was good fun to observe. The Father General was also a good man, always ordering the abortive assaults at 3 p.m. each day, except Sunday. On Sundays, he sent two. The sham attacks were so regular, officers and townsfolk set their watches by them.

However, Georgia had other problems. Concerns over unrest in Maryland and the movements of Lee in Virginia, as well as McClellan’s constant begging for reinforcements, slowly chipped away at his command. A regiment here, and a brigade there, left him with precious little to defend Harper’s Ferry. In fact, the garrison there became so weak that he ordered the arsenal be emptied, just in case.

It was also of little help that he was not by any means as strict a drillmaster as his opponent. Men drilled as their brigadiers saw fit, and that was much less than what the Father General was doing to the south. Winter quarters were comfortable – too comfortable in fact.

**

By early March, the Confederate War Department was seriously considering an attack on Harper’s Ferry. Such an attack could draw McClellan away from his snail’s paced advance on Richmond. But who would lead it? Surely not the Father General…

On Monday, March 10, 1862, Hebert was called in to a meeting of the Confederate War Department. The day of reckoning had finally arrived…
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Father General

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