“A memorable season of extraordinary rains”

Browsing and searching through the New York Times online archives is an interesting endeavor. In earlier posts, I recounted a frankly depressing story of the last days of a Civil War veteran in New York City and a reporter’s visit to the Cross Keys battlefield. In today’s post, I’m “sesquicentennializing” a bit with John C. Fremont’s elevation to command of the Mountain Department in the weeks leading to Cross Keys.

John Pope was never one to shy away from justifying his failures by blaming those who came before. John Fremont was never one to let someone libel his name, either. In January, 1863, the Times published Pope’s report of his Virginia campaign; one week later, Fremont wrote to the Times.

The point of contention was Pope’s comment that Fremont’s troops in late June 1862 were “badly organized, and in a demoralized condition.” Fremont’s response – “To realize how severe this exposure was it is well to recall the fact that this Winter and Spring were marked as a memorable season of extraordinary rains.”

Fremont shared a telegram from General Rosecrans (April 19, 1862) enumerating a lack of tents, shoes, provisions and forage. Somewhat to my surprise, Fremont uses Rosecran’s words to defend himself and does not “throw him under the bus” as we like to say today. Of course, we must remember that at the time (February 1863) of Fremont’s letter, Rosecrans was about five weeks past his victory at Stones River, Tennessee.

Fremont relates how several thousand soldiers needed new shoes in April 1862. The current National Geographic has a map insert showing that for two regiments, one Union and one Confederate, maybe fifteen days were spent marching in one year and hundreds of days were spent in camp. These Union regiments newly under Fremont’s command were doing a considerable bit of marching at this time. I can’t imagine what it would be like to march for miles either barefoot or with inadequate shoes and then camp with no shelter in rainy weather. Fremont then describes assembling his various components together, crossing eastward from the area of Petersburg, West Virginia, to Strasburg, Virginia, and attacking “Stonewall” Jackson.

Fremont proceeded to describe “crossing the Shenandoah mountains by a night march in a storm of cold rain, my corps attacked Jackson’s column at Strasburgh, acknowledged to be in greatly superior force, and drove him in disorder during the next eight days to Port Republic.”

Fremont then described the pursuit of Jackson’s men. “The road was strewn with arms, blankets and clothing, thrown away in their haste, or abandoned by their pickets where they had been surprised, and the woods and roads, lined by their stragglers, unable to keep up with the rapid retreat. For nine days we kept in sight of the enemy — the pursuit interrupted only by the streams where the enemy succeeded in destroying the bridges, for which our advance was in continual contest with his rear.”

My next post – reportage on the Germans in Fremont’s command in May 1862 and the arrival of Blenker’s troops.

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