The Most Scientific and Resourceful of All: General Edward Porter Alexander

alexander

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am getting ready to conclude my latest Gettysburg Staff Ride with my students from the Staff College. It has been a fantastic experience again. Right now I am getting ready to turn in for the night after having dinner and drinks with my students. In the morning we will be walking the ground of Pickett’s Charge before heading to General Meade’s headquarters and the Soldier’s Cemetary where President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

As part of what I have been doing on the site I have been periodically interspersing and publishing short articles about various commanders at Gettysburg. I did one on The Union cavalry commander, John Buford yesterday. 

These articles are all are drawn from my student text and will likely become a book in their own right when I finish the chapter on the Union commanders.  The reason is I am going to do this is because I have found that readers are often more drawn to the lives of people than they are events. As I have noted before that people matter, even deeply flawed people, and we can learn from them. Sometimes good and even honorable people serve malignant causes, while bad or even wicked people support good causes, usually for selfish reasons, but that is the constant quandary that human beings find themselves.

Today’s article is about Confederate General Edward Porter Alexander. Alexander directed the Confederate artillery during Pickett’s Charge and because he was not a terribly high ranking officer is comparatively little known.

However, Alexander is another interesting character. He was one of the most gifted and brilliant artillery commanders of the war and after the war went on to serve the country with distinction after following his re-integration back into the ranks of American citizens.

Alexander wrote a narrative of the war that is considered by historians to be one of the best and most objective accounts written by any Confederate. However, he was very much a military man and never fully grasped the political and ideological nature of the war, not the profound social effects of the Union victory. I hope you enjoy. Until tomorrow. 

Peace

Padre Steve+ 

Though he was only a Colonel commanding an artillery battalion in Longstreet’s First Corps at Gettysburg, Edward Porter Alexander needs to be mentioned in this text because during the battle he assumed tactical command of the largest concentration of Confederate artillery during the entire war. Likewise his contributions to the writing history of the war are incredibly important and provide some of the most balanced views of the war written by any participant on the Confederate side.

Alexander was born in Washington Georgia in 1835. He attended West Point and graduated third in his class in 1857. One of his classmates was Marcus Reno who was second in command of the ill-fated fight of Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.

Alexander was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers and served as an instructor at West Point. He realized after the John Brown raid that if war came he would fight for the Confederacy. He was married to Bettie Mason in April 1860 and was thereafter assigned to duty at Fort Steilacoom, Washington. He wrestled with his the decision to leave the army, his father was one of the Georgia legislators who voted for secession and like many Southern officers he decided to resign. He wrote about Lincoln, “If he is elected I believe that in the interests of humanity, civilization, and self-preservation call on the South to secede, I’ll go my arm, leg, or death on it.” [1]

His commander Major James McPherson who later had a prominent part in Sherman’s campaigns attempted to talk Alexander into remaining in the army on the west coast, but Alexander refused. McPherson graciously allowed Alexander and his bride to return to the East in a leave status. Bettie too was “upset by this decision and seriously questioned whether other alternatives were possible.” [2] But Alexander saw no other option. McPherson graciously allowed Alexander and his bride to return to the East in a leave status. When he got back to the South he resigned his commission after the election of Lincoln and on July 2nd 1861 Captain Alexander reported for duty at Manassas as an artillery officer. The professional artillerymen believed that Alexander “was the most scientific and resourceful of all.” [3]

Promotion came at regular intervals for Alexander. Initially he served as Beauregard’s Signals officer, and was appointed as the Chief of Ordnance for the Army of Northern Virginia, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was made an artillery battalion commander after Antietam, and at Fredericksburg his battalion was in the thick of the fighting along Marye’s Heights. With each new battle Lee and Longstreet “had come to rely increasingly on Alexander’s eager intelligence, regularly assigning him duties more properly those of Col. James Walton, Longstreet’s nominal chief of artillery, or even Brig. Gen, William N. Pendleton, the artillery chief of the Army of Northern Virginia.” [4] So trusted was he that he “had nearly a free hand in organizing the Fredericksburg defenses” [5] and his work was instrumental in turning back the Army of the Potomac in its bloody repulse.

During the winter of 1862-63 Alexander worked with Pendleton and Colonel Stapleton Crutchfield to reorganize the artillery in February 1863. He and his battalion were in the thick of the fighting at Chancellorsville where he also assumed command of Second Corps artillery when Crutchfield was wounded. [6] He was promoted to Colonel prior to Gettysburg and then Brigadier General of Artillery in February 1864. He was in the action in the Wilderness campaign and at Petersburg where he was badly wounded.

After recovering he rejoined the army and was present at the surrender at Appomattox where in the hours before the surrender he advocated beginning a guerrilla campaign in order to continue the war. This Lee was unwilling to do and Lee reminded Alexander and the other officers present that such was not an honorable course of action. Lee told Alexander:

“We have simply now to face the fact that the Confederacy has failed. And as Christian men, Gen. Alexander, you & I have no right to think for one moment of our personal feelings or affairs. We must consider only the effect which our action will have upon the country at large.” [7]

After Lee’s monologue Alexander later wrote “I was so ashamed of having proposed such a foolish and wild cat scheme that I felt like begging him to forget he had ever heard it.” [8] When Alexander saw the gracious terms of the surrender he was particularly impressed with how non-vindictive the terms were, especially in terms of parole and amnesty for the surrendered soldiers.

Sadly, Alexander really did not have any political vision or understanding of the meaning of the war. When asked about his “Confederate allegiance, Alexander had a straightforward explanation. “We didn’t go into our cause,” he said; “we were born into it.” [9] This is something that men like Virginian George Thomas who remained loyal to the Union would have certainly contested. Thomas’s loyalty resulted in him being rejected and disowned by his family during and after the war.

Alexander adjusted to peace and went into railroads, becoming highly successful railroad president as well as one of the more circumspect of the Confederate officers who wrote histories of the Civil War. His book Military Memoirs of a Confederate published in 1907 infuriated many associated with the myth of the lost cause for he dared to criticize the generalship of both Lee and Jackson. However, the book gained the praise of many reviewers for Alexander’s objectivity. The Nation wrote of it “No preceding book by a Southern officer surpasses this in good temper wise discrimination and graphic portrayal.” But the review also noted that Alexander “all but ignored social issues and barely touched on the merits and questions in dispute.” [10] A reviewer in the American Historical Review wrote: “He criticizes alike Confederate friend and Federal foe, the justice for which, in some cases, may be disputed, but the good temper showed must be conceded.” [11]

Alexander became a close friend of President Grover Cleveland and the President, recognizing Alexander’s talent sent him to “be the U.S. boundary arbitrator between Nicaragua and Costa Rica; a job that needed to be done prior to going ahead with plans for building the Panama Canal.” [12] As in nearly everything he did he was successful, but the cost was great. Bettie was experiencing severe health problems and died a month after he returned in 1899. He remarried in 1901 but his health continued to decline. He suffered a series of strokes, and he died in 1910 in Savannah.

Notes

[1] Golay, Michael To Gettysburg and Beyond: The Parallel Lives of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and Edward Porter Alexander Crown Publishers, New York 1994 p.74

[2] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.116

[3] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.44

[4] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.109

[5] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.109

[6] Ibid. Freeman Lee p.486

[7] Alexander, Edward Porter. Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander edited by Gary Gallagher University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1989 p.532

[8] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.262

[9] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.vii

[10] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.329

[11] Ibid. Golay To Gettysburg and Beyond p.329

[12] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.117

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

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