Wartime German Destroyers: From Narvik to the Capitulation II

The battle off the coast of Brittany, 9 June 1944.

In Operation ‘Walzertraum’ (Waltz Dream), the heavy cruiser Lützow set out on 15 May with Z 4, Z 10, Z 27, Z 29 and a fleet escort boat to join Kampfgruppe I (Battle Group I) at Trondheim. The voyage was interrupted at Kristiansand to allow the completion of a minelaying operation by Z 4 Richard Beitzen, and then the convoy proceeded, arriving at Trondheim to join Admiral Scheer on 20 May as Kampfgruppe II. Bogen Bay near Narvik was reached on the 26th.

On 13 June Admiral Hipper moved up to Bogen Bay to form part of Kampfgruppe I under the fleet commander Admiral Schniewind aboard his flagship Tirpitz. The next stage of the process was Operation ‘Musik’, the transfer northward to Altaford, and, on arrival in Grimsöytraumen, Lützow, Theodor Riedel, Hans Lody and Karl Galster all struck uncharted shallows and were ruled out of the main operation.

On 3 July the two Kampfgruppen joined forces to attack the heavily escorted convoy PQ.17, which consisted of 36 freighters, one tanker and three rescue ships and was heading for Murmansk. The operation was codenamed ‘Rösselsprung’ (Knight’s Move). Tirpitz, Admiral Hipper, Admiral Scheer, six destroyers—Z 14 Friedrich Ihn, Z 24, Z 27, Z 28, Z 29 and Z 30—and two torpedo-boats put to sea on 5 July. They were beyond the North Cape steering north-east when the recall order was transmitted at 2200 that evening, and by 7 July the fleet was back at anchor. The Seekriegsleitung and the British Admiralty made a similar decision to withdraw naval surface forces from the area at about the same time. The preparations of the combined German battle group had been observed by British aerial reconnaissance, resulting in the recall of the naval escort and the controversial order to the convoy to disperse, which was to prove its death knell. On the German side, the wireless monitoring service had decoded British signals traffic reporting the German preparations, and SKL ordered the formation at sea to return to harbour on the grounds of the risk incurred. PQ.17 was then savaged by U-boats and the Luftwaffe.

On 17 August Richard Beitzen, Erich Steinbrinck and Friedrich Eckholdt escorted Admiral Scheer towards Bear Island for her solitary anti-shipping cruise, Operation ‘Wunderland’, into the Kara Sea, where she bombarded Port Dickson on the North Siberian mainland. On 29 August she met up with the same three destroyers off Bear Island for the return to Kirkenes. Z 4, Z 15 and Z 16 had escorted the minelayer Ulm to Bear Island to sow a field north west of Novaya Zemlya. On the way back Ulm fell foul of the British destroyers Marne, Martin and Onslaught and was sunk after a brief engagement.

Operation ‘Doppelschlag’ (Double Blow) was a continuation of ‘Wunderland’. It was planned that Admiral Scheer, Admiral Hipper and three destroyers would operate off the estuaries of the Ob and Yenisei rivers on the north Russian coast before hunting for independent shipping on the Novaya Zemlya-Spitz-bergen track. The operation was cancelled because of ice and the state of Scheer’s diesels.

On 13 September Hitler issued an order forbidding the employment of surface warships against eastbound convoys. Between 4 and 8 September Richard Beitzen, Z 29 and Z 30 had laid mines at the entrance to the Kara Strait. On the 24th of the month, as the flagship of Admiral Kummetz, Hipper set out with Beitzen, Steinbrinck, Eckholdt and Z 28 steering north-northeast into the Barents Sea and during the evening of 26 September laid 96 mines off the Matoshkin Strait at the centre of Novaya Zemlya. The purpose of this operation, codenamed ‘Czarin’ (Empress) was to force enemy convoys closer to the coast of Norway and thus nearer to German naval units. The group dropped anchor in Altafjord on the 28th.

Between 13 and 15 October Friedrich Eckholdt, Z 24, Z 27 and Z 30 laid a minefield off the Kanin peninsula at the mouth of the White Sea, and this quickly claimed a victim when the Soviet icebreaker Mikoyan blew up. On 5 November Hipper sortied from Kaafjord into the Barents Sea in company with Beitzen, Eckholdt, Z 27 and Z 30 on Operation ‘Hoffnung’ (Hope) with the idea of criss-crossing the convoy tracks in search of merchant vessels sailing alone. Whilst in pursuit of a tanker sighted by Hipper’s shipboard Arado, Z 27 sank the Soviet submarine-chaser B0-78, picking up 43 crew members: the same destroyer, at the far end of the patrol line, also sank the Russian tanker Donbass (8,000grt) with three torpedoes, the crew being brought aboard. The German ships returned to Altafjord on 9 November.

Following the discovery by U 85 on 28 December of what was reported to be a lightly defended convoy of ten ships 70 miles south of Bear Island, all available surface units in northern Norway were brought to readiness on 29 December, and, in a conference the following day, C-in-C Cruisers, Vizeadmiral Kummetz, explained Operation ‘Regenbogen’ to the commanders. The first destroyer to detect the convoy would shadow it while the remainder of the destroyer force closed in. The cruisers would stand off until first light. The first objective was to destroy the convoy escort before attacking the merchantmen. A superior enemy was to be avoided.

On 30 December, the German Kampfgruppe, consisting of the flagship Admiral Hipper, the heavy cruiser Lützow and six destroyers—Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Friedrich Eckholdt, Z 29, Z 30 and Z 31, headed north on course 60° once clear of the coast. Kummetz ordered a 65-mile scouting line to be formed as from 0830 on 31 December, the six destroyers combing forward in a south-easterly direction 15nm apart. Hipper and Lützow would keep station astern of and to seaward of the northern and southern ends of the line respectively for an 85-mile width of search, while the destroyers would advance in the order Eckholdt-Z 29-Beitzen-Z 31-Z 30-Riedel. Whilst the warships were forming into their allotted positions in the scouting line, Hipper detected by radar two shadows at 60° which could not be German vessels, and Eckholdt was detached as contact keeper. Thus at the start of the engagement the German group was effectively divided into two sections, the northern of which consisted of Hipper and the destroyers Beitzen, Z 24 and Eckholdt.

At 0842—daybreak—Friedrich Eckholdt reported ten vessels steering 90°, and at 0910, at a range of 18.000yds bearing 140°, Hipper sighted a number of vessels, including destroyers, consituting the main convoy escort on its northern flank. The destroyers were Onslow, Obedient, Obdurate, Orwell and Achates. The fourteen ships of convoy JW.51B were steaming initially on an easterly bearing and bore round south at 1020. At 0930 Z 4, Z 16 and Z 24 fired on Obdurate. Spotting and rangefinding were very difficult in the poor light and poor visibility and because of the icing and misting over of instruments.

At 1018 the destroyer Onslow was hit by a salvo from Admiral Hipper and at 1027 was reported by Richard Beitzen as burning fiercely and down by the stern. At 1030 Hipper was about 15nm to the north of the convoy and steering east. The convoy was now on a course to the south towards Lützow, but Hipper was entrammelled with the escorts and having to concentrate on the destroyer Achates and the radar-equipped minesweeper Bramble.

At 1135, on ultra-short wave radio, Friedrich Eckholdt asked a series of questions to establish the identity of a warship she had just sighted. In a batch of replies at 1136 Kummetz signalled, ‘In combat with escort forces—no cruisers’, although two minutes earlier Admiral Hipper had been surprised by fire from a cruiser with large bridge, a raked forefunnel and turrets fore and aft, making 31 knots and identified as probably a Southampton or Fiji class cruiser. Hipper had been hit and had her speed reduced, so that at 1137 Kummetz, who was in any case in two minds because of an ambiguous signal from ashore, decided to abandon the operation. At 1143 the destroyer Eckholdt, ignorant of Richard Beitzen’s, warning radio message, decided that the cruiser she was facing must be German, and was sunk with all hands by Sheffield. The German force returned to Altafjord, where it dropped anchor on 1 January 1943.

The unforeseen outcome of the operation had the most serious consequences for the German surface fleet. Although the Kampfgruppe commander was bound by orders which required him to abandon the mission if heavy enemy forces appeared, the attack had already been reported as a great success, and when news of a fiasco was conveyed to Hitler instead, he reacted by decommissioning all ships of the size of light cruiser and above. Raeder resigned a few days later and was replaced by Grossadmiral Dönitz. The latter obtained some concessions, but on the whole the directive remained in force until the course of the war determined otherwise.

At the end of 1943 the number of operational Kriegsmarine destroyers was twenty, with ZH 1, Z 32, Z 33, Z 34, Z 37 and Z 38 now in commission. ZG 3 Hermes was lost off Tunisia in May, while Z 27 became a casualty in December.

On January, in Operation ‘Fronttheater’, Scharnhorst and Prinz Eugen were met off Hela by Paul Jacobi, Friedrich Ihn and Z 24 for the run to Norway, but when the squadron was sighted off the Skaw by RAF Coastal Command on the 11th the operation was broken off; a repeat attempt, code-named ‘Domino’, on the 25th with the destroyers Jacobi, Erich Steinbrinck, Z 32 and Z 37 was similarly unsuccessful, the units repairing to Gotenhafen on the 27th.

On 24 January Richard Beitzen, Z 29 and Z 30 sailed with Admiral Hipper and the light cruiser Köln from Altafjord to Bogen Bay and then Trondheim, leaving on 7 February for Kiel.The minelayer Brummer and the destroyers Z 6 Theodor Riedel and Z 31 laid the only offensive field of 1943 in the roadstead near Kildin Island, Kola Bay, between 4 and 6 February.

On 6 March Scharnhorst sailed from the Baltic. Having set out with Jacobi, Steinbrinck, Z 24, Z 25 and Z 28, plus five torpedo boats as escort, she arrived at Bogen Bay on 9 March with only Z 28 for company, the remainder following eight days later after having had weather damage repaired at Trondheim.

Between 31 March and 2 April Paul Jacobi, Theodor Riedel and Karl Galster waited near Jan Mayen for the blockade-runner Regensburg returning from Japan. The meeting never took place, the freighter having been sunk in the North Atlantic by the light cruiser Glasgow.

The major offensive of the year was the occupation of Spitzbergen, which was carried out between 6 and 9 September. While Lützow, Z 5 Paul Jacobi and Z 14 Friedrich Ihn remained in the anchorage at Altafjord to cover the numerous absences for the benefit of Allied air reconnaissance, the battleships Tirpitz and Scharnhorst and nine destroyers—Z 6, Z 10, Z 15, Z 20, Z 27, Z 29, Z 30, Z 31 and Z 33—headed for Barentsburg. During the approach to the town three destroyers were hit by coastal artillery: Z 29 suffered four hits, damage to outer plating, three dead and three wounded, Z 31 received eight hits on the upper deck, with one dead and one wounded, and Z 33 received no fewer than thirty-three hits to her hull and bridgework, resulting in 28 casualties, three of them fatal.

The last anti-convoy sortie by any German heavy warship ended in disaster on 26 December after Scharnhorst, accompanied by Z 29, Z 30, Z 33, Z 34 and Z 38 left Kaafjord on Christmas Day. Once the destroyer escort had been released because of the bad weather, the battleship continued alone and ran foul of the convoy escort—of capital-ship strength—off the North Cape. The FdZ, Bey, was commanding the operation aboard Scharnhorst and went down with his ship.

During 1943 the Kriegsmarine found it necessary to strengthen the escort force in the Bay of Biscay both for U-boats based there and for inbound merchantmen. Germany was not reliant on imports by sea as was Great Britain, but the occasional blockade-runner making the voyage to France from the Far East with high-value raw materials was of such importance that as many as five destroyers would sail to meet an inbound ship. For example, in July 1943 Z 23, Z 32 and Z 37 came in with Himalaya, in early August Z 23 and Z 32 actually entered the Atlantic beyond the longitude of Cape Ortegal to meet up with Pietro Orsedo, and on 23 December Z 23, Z 24, Z 27, Z 37 and ZH 1 escorted Osorno into the Gironde.

Late on Boxing Day 1943, Z 23, Z 24, Z 27, Z 32 and Z 37 sailed with six torpedo boats of 4. T-Flottille—T 22, T 23, T 24, T 25, T 26 and T 27—to meet the blockade-runner Alsterufer. However, this large freighter had already been sunk by the Royal Navy, and on 28 December the German force encountered the light cruisers Glasgow (9,100 tons, 32 knots, 12×6in guns) and Enterprise (7,580 tons, 33 knots, 7×6in guns) in what the Germans refer to as Das Gefecht in der Biskaya (The Battle of Biscay). The German vessels had several knots’ more speed in ideal sea conditions than the two British cruisers, and also mounted a superior number of guns of the same calibre, but Glasgow and Enterprise were far more seaworthy in heavy weather. The latter factor was decisive. There was a big sea running which slowed the German force considerably, and as gun platforms the German destroyers were inferior on the day because of the wild rolling motion. Glasgow and Enterprise put their speed and manoeuvrability to better use and sank Z 27 and the torpedo boats T 25 and T 26. Of the 740 men aboard these three ships, only 293 could be saved—21 by U 618, 34 by U 505, six by Spanish destroyers, 64 by British minesweepers and 168 by an Irish freighter.

Kapitän zur See Max-Eckart Wolff, who had been deputizing for Konteradmiral Bey as FdZ since 30 October 1943, took over the post in a caretaking capacity on 27 December. On 26 January 1944 Vize-admiral Leo Kreisch was appointed the last FdZ, relinquishing the appointment on 29 May 1945. At the beginning of 1944 the five destroyers of 8. Z-Flottille—Z 23, Z 24, Z 32, Z 37 and ZH 1—were operating out of Biscay ports as U-boat escorts and were frequently under air attack. By the end of August all five were either beyond repair or sunk.

During a flotilla exercise on 30 January Z 32 and Z 37 collided and both ships were badly damaged. Z 32 was laid up for repair until May and Z 37, listing heavily, was towed into Bordeaux, where it was decided not to repair the damage. Her guns were landed and earmarked for coastal defence use, and the ship decommissioned on 24 August.

On D-Day, 6 June, Z 24, Z 32, ZH 1 and the torpedo boat T 24 set out from the Gironde for Brest. After surviving determined air attacks en route, the flotilla headed for Cherbourg, from where mines were to be laid off Brest. The enemy had got wind of this operation, and off Wissant a superior force of British destroyers was waiting for the four German ships. ZH 1 received such heavy damage that she was scuttled that same day, and the other three dispersed and made a run for it. Z 24 and T 24 returned to Bordeaux, but Z 32, after initially making for St-Malo, reversed course and ran once more into the enemy destroyers. She received such serious damage that her commander was forced to sacrifice his ship by running her aground on rocks off the Île de Bas, Roscoff.

On 12 August Z 23, in dock at La Pallice, was bombed beyond repair during an air raid, She was decommissioned on 2 August. On 2 August Z 24 and T 24, anchored in the roadstead at Le Verdon, were attacked by bomb- and rocket-carrying Beaufighters of Nos 236 and 404 Squadrons RAF. T 24 was sunk; Z 24 managed to get alongside the quay at Le Verdon but capsized and sank there next day.

When not in the shipyard, Richard Beitzen, Theodor Riedel, Friedrich Ihn and Karl Galster, together with Z 30, worked out of southern Norwegian ports during 1944 on escort and minelaying duties. Mines were shipped at Fredrikshaven in Denmark and brought to Horten in Oslofjord to be distributed amongst the various units. Acting under instructions from the light cruiser Emden (flagship, C-in-C Minelayers), on 1 October Z 4, Z 14, Z 20 and Z 30 laid the Skagerrak XXXIIb Caligula field, the group coming under constant air attack while doing so. On 5 October the same ships laid the XXXIIa Vespasia field, also in the Skagerrak. On 20 October Z 30 struck a mine in Oslofjord and was towed to the shipyard by Ihn, Galster and UJ 1702. The repair work was still incomplete at the time of the capitulation.

Apart from a single sortie from Altafjord as far as Bear Island by Z 29, Z 31, Z 33, Z 34 and Z 38 on 30 May, the destroyers’ main task was to defend the battleship Tirpitz, principally against air attack. Following her demise in October and the decision to abandon the ‘Polar Front’, the destroyers escorted troop transports southwards and mined a number of fjords and sounds. No destroyers were lost in this theatre during 1944.

By early March 1944, Z 25, Z 28, Z 35 and Z 39 had all arrived in the eastern Baltic and begun minelaying operations in the Gulf of Finland. A major sortie was carried out there on dates between 13 and 25 April by Z 28, Z 35 and Z 39, the torpedo boat T 30, the minelayers Brummer, Roland and Linz and various minesweepers and R-boats. The new Z 36 joined the flotilla in June, but Z 39 returned to Germany for a long drawn-out repairs to bomb damage.

From 7 to 28 June, in Operation ‘Tanne West’, the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen patrolled the Finnish coast north of Utô in the Aaland Sea in a show of strength to cover the German withdrawal. She was relieved by the heavy cruiser Lutzow, escorted by the destroyers Z 25, Z 28, Z 35 and Z 36.

Between 30 July and 1 August 1944, in the Gulf of Riga, the same four destroyers were placed under Army direction for the bombardment of Soviet positions inland. On 5 August all four escorted Prinz Eugen from Riga to the island of Oesel to fire inland, and on 19 August, off Kurland in the Gulf of Riga, Prinz Eugen rained 265 rounds of 20.3cm on Soviet positions at Tukkum, a road and rail junction 25 kilometres inland, while the four destroyers and two torpedo boats engaged other targets.

During September 1944 Z 25, Z 28 and four boats of 2. T-Flottille covered the withdrawal from Reval, six freighters evacuating over 23,000 people. On 21 September Z 25 and Z 28 brought out 370 evacuees from Baltisch Port to Libau, and on the 22nd they escorted the remaining German ships in the Aaland Sea to Goten-hafen.

On 10 October Kampfgruppe II Thiele—comprising Prinz Eugen and the four destroyers—sailed from Gotenhafen. Z 25 had as an additional task the delivery of 200 Army personnel to Memel, returning overnight with 200 female naval auxiliaries. The ship re-joined the group on the 11th, and over the next five days Prinz Eugen, Lützow and the destroyers attacked 28 land targets in the defence of Memel. On 15 October, off Gotenhafen, Z 35 and Z 36 stood by the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Leipzig after they had become locked together following a collision in the approach channel. On the 24th of the month Z 28, Z 35 and Z 36, in company with Lützow and three torpedo boats, bombarded inshore targets around Memel and on the Sworbe peninsula. They came under attack from Soviet aircraft for the first time on this day: Z 28 was hit by five bombs and suffered nine dead and numerous wounded, while Z 35 received splinter damage from a near miss.

On 22 November 1944, Z 25, Z 43 and 2. T-Flottille, together with the heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer, relieved Prinz Eugen and 3. T-Flottille off Oesel, covering the withdrawal until its completion on 24 November despite constant Soviet air attacks; 4,700 German soldiers were evacuated.

On 9 December, 6. Z-Flottille, consisting of Z 35 (flag), Z 36, Z 43 and two torpedo boats, left Gotenhafen to lay a mine barrier off the Estonian coast in Operation ‘Nil’ (Nile). On their arrival in the scheduled area on 12 December there was a thick ground fog, and as a result of poor navigation and the ‘confused, inflexible and deficient operational plan’ drawn up by Kapitän zur See Kothe (for which he was blamed posthumously), Z 35 and Z 36 entered the German-laid Nashorn minefield, where they were mined, blew up and sank with all hands. The situation offered no prospect for a rescue.

At the beginning of 1945, Z 33 was under repair at Narvik, and after enduring the occasional battering from the air in her attempts to get back to Germany, she sailed on 26 March from Trondheim for Swinemünde—the last German destroyer to leave the northern Norwegian theatre. After laying mines in Laafjord and the Mageröy and Brei Sounds during the latter part of January, Z 31, Z 34 and Z 38 had left Tromsö for German Baltic waters on the 25th. By the 28th they had reached Sognefjord, where they were intercepted by a British squadron which included the light cruisers Mauritius (8,000 tons, 12×6in guns, 6 torpedo tubes) and Diadem 5,770 tons, 8×5.25in guns, 6 torpedo tubes). Z 38 broke off the action with a funnel fire and split boiler tubes, and she made Kiel via Aarhus later with Z 34. The latter carried out three torpedo attacks on the British cruisers and received a shell hit on the waterline. Z 31 came off worst in the encounter. She was hit seven times, her 15cm twin turret was totally destroyed and she suffered 55 dead and 24 wounded. She put into Bergen for repair and eventually left the Oslo yard for Germany in mid-March.

Until the capitulation on 8 May 1945, and even afterwards, German units worked on a naval evacuation programme which dwarfed anything ever seen previously. Destroyers were involved in escorting refugee ships and boats of all kinds, and often embarked thousands of refugees themselves. Actual combat in the Baltic in 1945 was limited to gunnery engagements with Soviet troop dispositions and armour and artillery inland, the last rounds being fired on 4 May, after which a partial ceasefire came into effect, enabling the evacuation to proceed as agreed.

Between January and May 1945 1,420,000 individuals were evacuated by sea to the west, most of them refugees or Wehrmacht wounded, although fighting troops numbered more prominently amongst those brought out towards the end. On 2 May a report from Hela spoke of 150,000 soldiers and 26,000 refugees awaiting transport, plus 75,000 troops and 9,000 refugees in the Vistula lowlands. In the evening of 5 May numerous vessels arrived in Gotenhafen from Copenhagen and embarked refugees and troops to capacity, setting off westwards in four large convoys. These included the auxiliary Hansa (12,000 refugees), the minelayer Linz (4,900), the destroyers Karl Galster, Hans Lody, Theodor Riedel and Z 25 (6,000 in all) in Convoy 1; the troopships Ceuta (4,500) and Pompeii (5,400) with three torpedo boats (1,975 total) as Convoy 2; the destroyer Friedrich Ihn, T 28, the depot ship Isar and V 2002 (5,500 total) as Convoy 3; and M 453, V 303 and the training ship Nautik (2,700 total) as Convoy 4. During the night of 7 May small boats and naval launches brought 14,590 Wehrmacht personnel plus 1,810 wounded and refugees from the Vistula plain to Hela, and the following night the destroyers Karl Galster, Friedrich Ihn, Hans Lody, Theodor Riedel, Z 25, Z 38, Z 39 and five torpedo boats embarked another 20,000, the steamers Weserberg and Paloma carrying 5,730 more. A total of 100,000 persons on Hela and in the Vistula area could not be brought out, and these became prisoners of the Soviets.

By the time the surrender came into effect, a total of 116,692 soldiers and 5,397 refugees were still at sea in German warships, heading for either Copenhagen or Kiel.


A Passion for Conquering Forts

Sarkhel Kanhoji Angre. Admiral of Maratha Navy 1698 – 1729.

A painted scroll showing Gurab, Galbat and other types of warships of the Maratha Navy. In the lower part of the scroll are shown the ships of the Maratha navy and some captured English ship.

The East India Company’s relationship with its neighbours at Arcot and Bengal was dominated by fractious, fortified peace during the first half of the eighteenth century, with only sporadic outbursts of fighting. Things were different on India’s western coast. There, the relationship between British and Indians was frequently ruptured. These tensions led to half a century of war with Maratha sea forces led by Kanhoji Angre, and smaller conflicts with independent rulers along the coast of western India further south. Historians today suggest that the ‘first Anglo-Maratha War’ began in 1775, but when Clement Downing published his Compendious History of the Indian Wars in 1739, it was conflict with the Maratha sea captain Kanhoji Angre that he was writing about. These forgotten wars sapped the Company’s resources, costing the treasury in Bombay 80,000 rupees a year (£1.3 million in 2016 prices) during their height, in addition to ships and soldiers being sent from Britain. Such wars did not go well for the British: the Company failed to inflict a single defeat on the Marathas on land or sea.

Throughout the conflict, the East India Company battled a Maratha state which built a compact regional regime tied into the reconfigured structures of Mughal power. After convincing Kanhoji Angre to back Shahu in the Maratha civil war, Balaji Vishwanath’s next success at the negotiating table was to persuade the Mughal emperor to put his relationship with the Marathas on a permanent footing. In May 1719, Balaji at last negotiated a stable relationship between the two powers. The Marathas would pay 100,000 rupees into the Mughal treasury and provide troops for the dominant faction at court in Delhi; in exchange, the Marathas would have absolute control over their heartland, and then have the right to collect 35 per cent of land revenue in a vast swathe of territory in the south of India beyond. The deal gave Shahu’s regime unchallengeable legitimacy in the eyes of Marathi nobles and merchants, and allowed his government to centralize power within the administrative offices which Balaji Vishwanath established at Pune.

Shahu’s regime consolidated power in the same way as other Mughal successor states in Bengal, Arcot and elsewhere, tightening control of land rights, deepening its relationship with regional trading networks and using military force more readily against rival centres of power. The difference was that the Marathas tried to assert dominion over the sea as well as the land; they, like the Portuguese before them, claimed to be lords of the sea. It was this claim that entangled Kanhoji’s maritime forces closely with the affairs of the East India Company.

The Marathas used techniques learnt from the Portuguese to assert power over the ocean, filling the vacuum left by the decline of the Estado da India. By 1710, Kanhoji’s sea force asserted its sovereignty from Goa to Surat by insisting every ship bought one of their passes in order to be allowed to sail and trade. The Maratha capacity to make this claim real was far greater than the Portuguese Estado da India’s had been even at its peak. But, still, the reality was that a single force was unable to dominate India’s western coast. The Marathas were willing to concede the export trade to foreigners, letting ships managed and owned by Europeans sail freely if they acknowledged their authority, insisting only Indian vessels pay customs duties. There was, in other words, plenty of scope for an accommodation with the East India Company. But English paranoia made peace difficult to sustain.

Five years of peace followed Katherine Chown’s capture and quick return, but fighting between the English and Kanhoji Angre broke out again in 1718. The cause this time was the Maratha admiral’s capture of four ships. Kanhoji claimed they belonged to Indian merchants who were using the Company’s flag to shield themselves from Maratha power, and had not paid customs. One, which the Company said belonged to a British merchant from Calcutta, had been sold to an Indian trading with Muscat. Another was the property of Trimbakji Maghi, a Marathi merchant travelling with goods belonging to traders from the Mughal port of Surat. Kanhoji claimed that Trimbakji was from Alibag on the Maratha mainland, so did not fall under the protection of the Company. The Company claimed he was a resident of Bombay and so was under their jurisdiction.

A succession of claims and counter-claims was made in a stream of letters between Kanhoji Angre and the British Governor of Bombay. They show how entangled British trade had become with the mercantile life of western India, and how difficult it was to map the flow of commodities on to national communities. In this fast-moving world of shifting identities, it was impossible to say what belonged to the Company and what did not. The exchange of goods between states could only be sustained if people were willing to talk, and give each other the benefit of the doubt. A big man with a reputation for talking plainly and simply, Kanhoji complained that the British did not treat him with respect or amity. Moments of tension were inevitable, Kanhoji said, but could be resolved if people were willing to trust one another. But the Company’s officers treated him as someone who could only be dealt with through threats and bribes, Kanhoji complained, and let ‘doubts and disputes’ corrode their relationship. After one dispute, Kanhoji forbade the Company’s ships from entering Maratha rivers and the British prepared for war.

Bombay’s council issued a proclamation blocking Kanhoji’s ships from British ports, sending troops with drums and trumpets to read it ‘in a thousand places’ throughout the island. The British then started raiding. They sent twenty small ships to seize vessels ‘and if possible plunder his country’. In two such expeditions in May 1718, they ‘destroyed some villages and cattle’. Panic inspired a wave of new fortification in Bombay, and the search for new sources of money to pay for it. To cover the extra costs, traders were charged additional duties, and an extra tax levied on the owners of houses within the fort. Eventually, on 1 November, a Company fleet of seven ships, two ‘bomb ketches’ and forty-eight rowing boats attacked Kanhoji’s fort at Khanderi. The raid was a disaster. The ships could not get close enough to bombard the fort with cannon, and the soldiers who landed got stuck in marshy ground. Eventually the Company’s force of 558 Indian troops refused to march into the relentless cannon and small arms fire coming out of Angre’s fort, and the English had no choice but to return, defeated, to Bombay.

In practice, the East India Company had neither the money, the men nor the strategy to defeat the powerful Maratha military at sea. The idea that Kanhoji could be subdued was yet another example of British hubris. But Company officers were driven by their mad rage against the ‘pyratical’ behaviour of Kanhoji Angre. Even when a peaceful settlement was possible, they were not willing to negotiate. After another humiliating defeat, their response was not to question the decision-making that led to the beginning of such a disastrous war, but to blame their failure on the supposedly treacherous action of Indian allies.

Bombay in the 1710s and 1720s was a fast-growing settlement with a tiny English population trying, and usually failing, to impose authority over between 10,000 and 20,000 Indian inhabitants. As well as merchants, Parsis, Muslims and Brahmins, the island was populated by weavers and landholders, shopkeepers and fishermen, toddy-tappers, ‘enemy’ sailors and ships’ captains. A tiny fraction of this population was engaged in the export trade to Europe, working as weavers, dyers, washers or beaters in the textile trade, for example. Most of Bombay’s residents had nothing to do with the ostensible purpose of the Company as the supplier of an export market, but were attracted instead to live in a fortified city that was becoming a central node in western India’s complicated networks of coastal trade. Beyond the tiny, half-mile-square enclave of Bombay fort, the Company did not establish anything like a rule of law. Robbery was a continual problem and the wealthy needed to employ their own guards. Taxes were collected through the same network of local intermediaries that the Portuguese had appointed. The East India Company did not even rule its own soldiers. Bombay’s militia had over a thousand men under arms. They relied primarily on Portuguese and Brahmin brokers to recruit Bhandari troops. This was the same community that provided most of Kanhoji Angre’s seafarers.

The Company blamed one of these military recruiters for defeat at Khanderi. Rama Kamath was a wealthy Indian merchant who had long been an ally and commercial partner of the English. Kamath was a Gaudi Saraswati Brahmin, a member of a Hindu community that once flourished in Goa but was driven out when religious dogmatism made it harder for non-Christians to live under Portuguese rule; the Catholic Inquisition had spread to Goa in the 1560s. By 1686, Rama Kamath was living most of the year in Bombay, using his connections throughout the Brahmin diaspora to build a formidable trading network based primarily on the cultivation of tobacco. An ‘old trusty servant of the Right Honourable Company’, he helped during the war with the Mughals ‘not only in procuring [troops] but encouraging them to fight the enemy’. Kamath was an important trading partner of John Harvey’s predecessor as chief at Karwar, William Mildmay. In 1709, Kamath borrowed 10,000 rupees at what, by contemporary standards, was the very low interest rate of 9 per cent, proving there was a degree of trust between the two men.

Kamath used the money he earned to invest in the social life of Bombay, paying particularly for the construction of Hindu places of worship. In 1715 he funded the reconstruction of Walkeshwar Temple, an old site of Hindu piety on Bombay’s Malabar Hill which had been demolished by the Portuguese. But Bombay’s public life involved a degree of religious plurality. Kamath paid for Parsi institutions as well, and helped support the construction of the city’s first British church, now St Thomas’s Cathedral, next to Horniman Circle Gardens, completed in 1718. The church was consecrated on Christmas Day of that year, and the Company paid another 1,175 rupees for a festival that started with the baptism of a child and ended with drunken revelry. Kamath celebrated this moment ‘with all his caste’. His entourage was ‘so well pleased by the decency and regularity of the way of worship, that they stood outside it for the whole service’.

Three months before those celebrations, it was Kamath who had recruited the soldiers sent into battle against Kanhoji’s fort at Khanderi. Kamath was blamed for the fact that they refused to walk into blistering Maratha gunfire. In the year after the defeat, Governor Boone and his colleagues on the Bombay council began to prosecute this once staunch ally of English power in Bombay for treason. Kamath wasn’t only accused of encouraging soldiers to mutiny, but also of informing Kanhoji Angre that the ‘Bengal ship’ sailing through Angre’s waters with a Company flag didn’t belong to a British merchant, and giving the Maratha admiral advance warning of English military actions.

Kamath had certainly broken with the East India Company’s orders not to trade with the enemy, buying wool and turmeric from Kanhoji Angre during the war; but dividing commerce along national lines was always an impossibility in the multi-national city of Bombay. The remainder of the charges were pure fiction. The letters upon which the case against Kamath relied were forgeries; witnesses had lied. But Governor Boone, who led the charge against Kamath and his servant Dalba Bhandari, wasn’t deliberately making things up. He was furious about being defeated and extremely keen to find the simplest cause of British vulnerability in Bombay and purge it. The trial demonstrated the scale of British paranoia. Deeply enmeshed in political and commercial relationships they had little control over, Bombay’s British residents saw plots and conspiracies everywhere when things did not go their way. ‘The Angre was always on our brain then,’ as one writer later commented.

Charged and convicted of treason, Rama Kamath was held in prison in Bombay fort until his death ten years later in 1728. The Company’s paranoia nearly caused a full-scale rebellion at the fort. Uncertain who would be next arrested, angry merchants gathered and protested against the Company’s government. Governor Boone quickly published ‘a proclamation for quieting the minds of the people’, and issued a full pardon for all but Rama Kamath and Dalba Bhanderi, also supposedly involved in the plot.

War between the Company and Kanhoji Angre continued. A British attack in October 1720 failed. In March 1721, the Company persuaded the Portuguese at Goa to collaborate with them, but their joint attack led to nothing more than the loss of a large ship. The Court of Directors in London sent reinforcements later that year. When a fleet of ships commanded by a Commodore Matthews arrived in September 1721, another combined attack with the Portuguese was rebuffed by Angre’s boats and forts with the death of thirty-three British soldiers. In December, Kanhoji’s navy was reinforced by an army of 6,000 Maratha troops sent by Shahu from the Deccan and the British were defeated again. Balaji Vishwanath had died in 1720, and his young son and successor as chief administrator of the Maratha empire tried to persuade the English to negotiate. The Marathas stuck to their argument, insisting on their sovereignty over the sea, and free trade for ships of all nationalities, a right which would have undermined the British offer of physical protection. Mindful of the humiliating war with the Mughals forty years earlier, London reminded the Company’s officers that ‘the Society whom you serve are a Company of Trading merchants and not Warriors’, but fighting nonetheless continued throughout the 1730s and 1740s. The first British victory in its fifty-year sea war against the Marathas occurred in 1755 but by then Kanhoji Angre had died, and his sons had fallen out of favour with the Peshwa, the chief administrator of the Maratha regime. The Company only defeated the Angres because, by then, they fought as allies of the Maratha regime.


5 June 1619 and the ‘Kaiserliche Armee’

The ‘Kaiserliche Armee’ (Emperor’s army) was a name that stuck to the Habsburg forces until their dissolution in 1918. It was a title fashioned in the extraordinary crisis of June 1619. Before that moment no one had thought of the Habsburgs’ troops as the personal property of the sovereign. A few dramatic moments changed all that and thenceforth a bond was formed between soldier and monarch which endured for three centuries. The strength of this new relationship was quickly tested in the Thirty Years War. When that conflict threw up in the shape of Wallenstein the greatest warlord of his time, the issue of loyalty became critical. The dynasty was eventually able to rely on its soldiers to eliminate the threat. By the end of this period the Kaiserliche Armee was an undisputed reality.

The first week of June takes Vienna in a haze of heat and dust. Throats become parched as the warm wind raises small clouds of dirt along roads and tracks. The Viennese, irritable at the best of times, fractiously push each other and the stranger aside, addictively and automatically seeking shade and shelter. While the clouds become darker the stifling humidity immobilises even the pigeons, which gather dozily on the surfaces of the dusty courtyards of the Hofburg, the Imperial palace whose apartments were, are and always shall be synonomous with the House of Habsburg.

In June 1619, Vienna had not yet reached its unchallenged position as capital of a great European empire. True, the Habsburgs had come a long way since 1218, when a modest count by the name of Rudolf had brought the family out of the narrow Swiss valleys of his birth and, through a series of battles and later dazzling dynastic marriages, had propelled a family of obscure inbred Alpine nonentities into the cockpit of Europe whence they would become the greatest Imperial dynasty in history. Other countries might have many families over the years to supply their monarchs – the case of England leaps to mind – but the story of Austria and the heart of Europe is really the story of one, and only one, family: the Habsburgs.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Habsburgs as a world power were already past their zenith. The Empire ‘on which the sun never set’, with its domains across Spain, Latin America and Germany, had split into two on the retirement of Charles V in 1556. The Spanish domains had gone to Charles’s son Philip II while the Austrian domains enmeshed with the fabric of the Holy Roman Empire had passed to Charles’s nephew Ferdinand. Even England in 1554 when Philip married Queen Mary at Winchester Cathedral had seemed destined to be incorporated permanently into this family’s system.

But while the Spanish domains were a more cohesive entity, the Austrian branch, assuming its ‘historic’ right to the crown of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire, was a rich tapestry of principalities, Lilliput kingdoms and minor dukedoms in which different races owed their allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. The title was not hereditary, however much the Habsburgs may have thought it their own. The Emperor was elected by a council of seven princes who gathered at Frankfurt am Main. The Habsburg claim to this title, which from 6 January 1453 they perceived as almost a family right, arose from the possession of their crown lands in Central Europe and above all their title to the Kingdom of Bohemia. Although the Austrian Habsburgs could never really aspire to the global status their family had achieved under Charles V a generation earlier, they were to assume a powerful position in European history.

A half-century after the great division of Charles’s Habsburg spoils, Vienna still had rivals. Graz to the south and east and Prague to the west and north were both cities of importance to the Habsburgs. In the latter Rudolf II, philosopher, astrologer and occultist, had set up his capital in 1583, tolerating the ‘new’ Reformation theologies. In the former, the Archduke Ferdinand after his childhood in Spain and a Jesuit education in Bavaria had ruled the Styrian lands of ‘Inner Austria’ in a different manner. Between these two very different poles of authority Vienna still had not yet come of age. But in the hot days of June 1619, Vienna was to establish now an unrivalled ascendancy, becoming for a few moments the fulcrum of a pivotal conflict.

On 5 June, as the soporific wind carried the dust across the Hofburg palace towards the great Renaissance black and red ‘Swiss Gate’, a heated exchange could be heard through the open shutters of the dark masonry above. A sullen and armed mob numbering about a hundred had gathered below to await the outcome of this exchange, intimidating the guards and cursing the name of Habsburg.

In the dark vaulted rooms above the Schweizer Tor the object of all this hostility sat at his desk, facing the mob’s leaders, his frame defiant; his expression inscrutable. Diminutive in stature and stiff in countenance Archduke Ferdinand of Graz seemed unequal to the men who, unannounced, had burst into his rooms. These men were tall and rough; their hands large, bony and unmanicured. Their faces were twisted into angry and threatening expressions and the virtue of patience, if they had ever experienced it, was not uppermost in their minds.

They were a gang of Protestant noblemen who had defenestrated two of Ferdinand’s representatives, Slawata and Martinic, from the great window of the Hradčany castle in Prague barely a year before, initiating the violent challenge to Habsburg authority which became the Thirty Years War. Their leader, Mathias Thurn, was a giant of a man who had used the pommel of his sword to smash the knuckles of his victims as they held on for dear life to the ledge of the window. That both men had cried for divine intervention and – mirabile dictu – had fallen safely on to dung heaps had not in any way been due to Thurn’s going easy on them. Moderation was not his strongest suit. And now on this stifling day in Vienna, Thurn was again in no mood for negotiation. His large-boned fists crashed down on the desk in front of him. He may have been Bohemia’s premier aristocrat but he was passionate, hot-headed and violent.

Martin Luther’s ‘Reformation’ a hundred years earlier with its challenging practicalities, rejection of Papal corruption, increasing anti-Semitism and radical challenge to the authority of Rome had spread its tentacles across Germany into Bohemia and the new faith had fired the truculence and latent Hussite sympathies of the Bohemian nobility. Two hundred years earlier Jan Hus, the renegade Czech priest, had roused the Bohemians to revolt and he had been burned at the stake in Prague for heresy against the Catholic Church. Now, under Thurn, Hus’s legacy of a Bohemian challenge to Catholic Habsburg authority had been reinvigorated with all the pent-up energy of the ‘Reformation’. These sparks were literally about to set Europe ablaze.

Ferdinand of Graz

Ferdinand was a pupil of the Jesuits, one of the new orders established in 1540 by the Vatican to combat heresy and invigorate the Church. In 1595, at the age of 18, he had arrived in ‘Reformation’ Graz on Easter Sunday. When he celebrated Mass in the old faith that day, inviting the population to join him, he was dismayed to find that not a single burgher of Graz appeared. Styria at the end of the sixteenth century was overwhelmingly Protestant. Ferdinand with all the dignity of his upbringing showed no outward sign of disappointment but he immediately set about radically changing this state of affairs.

His Spanish upbringing and his devotion to the Jesuits could only produce one practical result. There were to be no half-measures. Ferdinand publicly proclaimed that he would rather live for the rest of his life in a hair shirt and see his lands burned to a cinder than tolerate heresy for a single day. Within eighteen months, Protestantism ceased to exist in Styria; every Protestant (and there were tens of thousands of them) was either converted or expelled, among the latter the great astronomer Kepler, who travelled to Prague. Every Protestant text and heretical tract was burned, every Protestant place of worship closed. Two weeks was allowed to the population to choose exile or conversion. As an exercise in largely bloodless coercion Ferdinand’s measures have no equal. The Styrian nobility capitulated. When during the following Easters, Ferdinand celebrated Mass, the entire population of the city turned out to join him. To this day, as Seton-Watson, the historian of the Czechs and the Slovaks, observed, there is ‘no more dramatic transformation in the history of Europe than the recovery of Austria for the Catholic Faith’.

But in 1619 Vienna was not Graz and the Bohemian nobility with their Upper Austrian supporters were not to prove as pliant as their Styrian counterparts. On 5 June 1619, Ferdinand, now 41 years of age, might have been forgiven for believing his Lord had deserted him. Inside the palace, Ferdinand’s supporters appeared demoralised and despondent. Ferdinand and his Jesuit confessor alone remained calm. For several hours, as they had awaited Thurn, the Archduke had prostrated himself before the cross. It seemed a futile gesture. The rest of Europe had already written Ferdinand off. France, the leading Catholic power, had withdrawn any offer of help. In Brussels, in the Habsburg Lowlands, members of Ferdinand’s family spoke of replacing the ‘Jesuitical soul’ with the Archduke Albert, a man altogether less in thrall to the vigour of the gathering forces of the Counter-Reformation. Even Hungary, of which, like Bohemia, Ferdinand was theoretically King, appeared to be on the brink of open rebellion.

Ferdinand had abandoned his ill and dying son to hurry to Vienna from Graz towards the end of April in 1619 to meet the emergency in Bohemia head-on and rally the Lower Austrian nobility. But in the seven dry and hot weeks of the spring of 1619 his journey had been less of a pageant and more of a via dolorosa. Everywhere he had encountered refugees from Bohemia and Moravia where, following the defenestration, the rebels had seized church property. Many were monks and nuns from plundered churches and convents. The Catholics, hunted out of Upper Austria, fell to their knees as their Emperor passed but few imagined this slight man could save them from the perils of their time. When Ferdinand reached Vienna at the end of May 1619, the hot weather had contributed to another pestilence to add to heresy: the plague.

As the Bohemian rebels, Starhemberg, Thurn and Thonradel smashed their way into the Hofburg they could be confident that all the strong cards were in their hands. How could this little Archduke hope to resist their demands? They would intimidate him and force him to sign documents that would restore their freedom to worship in the new faith, confirm their privileges and above all compel the hated Jesuits to leave the Habsburg crown lands of Styria and Bohemia. If he resisted, well the windows were large and high enough in the Hofburg and, as Thurn must have noticed with satisfaction as he raced up the stairs of the Schweizer Tor, there was no dung heap here to cushion a fall.

For what seemed might be the last time the Habsburg withdrew to his private oratory, and once again prostrate in front of the cross Ferdinand quietly prayed that he was ‘now ready if necessary to die for the only true cause’. But, Ferdinand added, ‘if it were God’s will that he should live then let God grant him one mercy: troops’, and, he added as the noise rose without, ‘as soon as possible’.

As the Bohemian ringleaders burst into Ferdinand’s rooms, one of their number, Thonradel, seized the collar of Ferdinand’s doublet. According to one account, Thonradel forced the Archduke to sit down at his desk. Taking a list of their demands out of his own doublet, the rebel placed them on the desk in front of the Archduke and screamed in Latin: ‘Scribet Fernandus!’

What would have happened next had these men remained undisturbed and allowed to continue this rather one-sided dialogue will never be known for at precisely this moment the sound of horses’ hooves and the cracked notes of a distant cavalry trumpeter brought the confrontation to an abrupt halt.

As the clatter of horsemen wheeling below brought both the Archduke and his persecutors to the window, no one was arguably more surprised than Ferdinand. Below, to the consternation of the crowd, were several hundred Imperial cuirassiers under their colonel, Gilbert Sainte-Hilaire. The regiment was named after their first proprietary colonel: Count Heinrich Duval de Dampierre.

Count Heinrich Duval de Dampierre

Sainte-Hilaire had been sent to the Archduke’s aid by the only member of Ferdinand’s family not to have deserted him: his younger brother, Leopold, from Tyrol. The cuirassiers had ridden hard from the western Alps and reached Vienna via Krems. Their timing was impeccable. Ferdinand straightened himself up and noticed that the confidence of even the most brutal of his opponents had evaporated. Thurn was too much of a realist to try to settle accounts with Ferdinand surrounded by loyal cavalry. As Sainte-Hilaire’s men dismounted and with swords drawn raced up the stairs to the Habsburg, the rebels adopted almost instantly a very different mien. No more blood, they insisted, should be spilt. Thurn and his men bowed and withdrew.

Whatever the precise sequence of the encounter – and modern Jesuit historians challenge some of the details – there can be little doubt that had Ferdinand yielded that June day of 1619, the Counter-Reformation in his lands would have stalled and the Habsburgs would have ceased to play any further meaningful part in the history of Central Europe. With Bohemia and Lower Austria lost, the keys to Central Europe would have been surrendered. It is even likely that Catholicism would have become a minority cult practised north of the Alps only by a few scattered and demoralised communities.

For the army and the dynasty, the events of 5 June 1619 were no less critical. They had forged the umbilical cord which would bind them until 1918. Henceforth dynasty and army would mutually support each other. From this day there would be, for three hundred years, a compact between Habsburg and soldier, indivisible and unbreakable through all the great storms of European history. The army first and foremost would exist to serve and defend the dynasty.

For the next three centuries the generals of the Habsburg army would have the events of 5 June 1619 burnt into their subconscious and no commander would risk the destruction of his army, because without an army the dynasty would be put at risk. It was always better to fight and preserve something for another day than to risk all to destroy the enemy. This unspoken compact would snap only in November 1918 on the refusal of the last Habsburg monarch to use the army in a way that would risk their being deployed against his peoples.

The army benefited in many ways from these arrangements. As a symbol of this bond, Ferdinand II granted the Dampierre cuirassiers (and their successor regiments) the right to ride through the Hofburg with trumpets sounding and standards flying. Nearly two hundred years later, in 1810, the Emperor Francis I confirmed the privilege. The regiment could ride through Vienna and set up a recruitment office on the Hofburg square for three days. In addition the colonel of the regiment was to enjoy accommodation in the Hofburg palace whenever he wished and had the unique right of an unannounced audience with the Emperor at any time in ‘full armour’ (‘unangemeldet in voller Ruestung vor Sr. Majestät dem Kaiser zu erscheinen’).

These privileges were a modest recompense. The arrival of the Dampierre cavalry not only saved Ferdinand, it marked the turning of a tide. Five days later, on 10 June 1619 in Sablat near Budweis (Budějovice) in southern Bohemia, the Imperial forces under Buquoy defeated Mansfeld, the most able of the Protestant commanders, in the first Catholic victory of the conflict. This victory resonated throughout Europe and Ferdinand, having been written off barely a month earlier, now found himself receiving pledges of support not only from Louis XIII of France but from the many German princes who had earlier misinterpreted the winds of change blowing against the Habsburgs and had dismissed Ferdinand’s claims to the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

This title to which the Habsburgs had been elected since the fifteenth century carried mostly prestige. The Empire itself was, for all its insistence on its links with Charlemagne and before him the old western Roman Empire, an incoherent tapestry of different entities. In a world where influence was as important as power, the presence of a Habsburg as Holy Roman Emperor gave that family a dominating say in the affairs of the Germans. If Ferdinand could secure the Imperial title, which became vacant on the death in 1619 of his more tolerant cousin Mathias, it would cut the ground from beneath those rebels who had opposed his receiving the crown of Bohemia in 1617 and the crown of Hungary in 1618, men who with reason feared the Catholic orthodoxy which was Ferdinand’s touchstone.

Already, the Kurfürst (Elector) of Trier supported Ferdinand’s claim to the leadership of the Holy Roman Empire. The Catholic League led by Maximilian of Bavaria also declared itself for Ferdinand. At the last moment, the news in the autumn of 1619 came from Prague that the rebels in a desperate step had elected as their king the Protestant Elector Palatine, Frederick, a 25-year-old Calvinist and mystic who believed in a Protestant Union of Europe. But it was too late: Ferdinand had been elected two days earlier unanimously (even with the votes of the Palatinate) as Holy Roman Emperor or Kaiser. The new Kaiser set about impressing his authority on his domains immediately.

Across the Rappahannock on Pontoon Bridges I

Burnside with a bevy of his generals, photographed by Alexander Gardner on November 10, 1862. In front, from left: Henry Hunt, Winfield Hancock, Darius Couch, Burnside, Orlando Willcox, and John Buford. At rear, from left: Marsena Patrick, Edward Ferrero, John Parke, a staff man, John Cochrane, and Samuel Sturgis.

Pontoon bridges placed by Union forces across the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in December 1862.  Photo from National Park Service, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park Photo Gallery, online at http://www.nps.gov/frsp/photosmultimedia/photogallery.htm.

That twice before he pressed the Potomac army command on Burnside (reports of which had leaked out) had tempered Lincoln’s choices for a new commanding general. In any case, Burnside had certain qualities that at this critical moment in the army’s history commended him to the post. He did well enough on the North Carolina coast and at South Mountain. At Antietam he performed no worse than several other Federal generals. He was an outsider yet not a stranger to the officer corps. He was considered a friend of McClellan’s yet did not owe his place to him. Although he fought at First Bull Run and lately in Maryland, he was not so deeply rooted in the Army of the Potomac’s culture and politics that his independence was compromised. Just that reason drew Lincoln to Burnside in the first place—he seemed apolitical.

Joe Hooker had the better fighting record, certainly, but Hooker’s outspoken faultfinding and unbridled ambition made him, just then, a potentially disruptive leader. Among the other corps commanders, Porter and Franklin were notably McClellan’s men, and Sumner was notably unsuited for high command. Lincoln recognized that at this moment—unrest and worse reported in the officer corps, the supposed conspiracy disclosed by Major Key—Ambrose Burnside might be the best antidote for whatever poisons infected the Potomac army’s high command. For Henry Halleck, replacing McClellan “became a matter of absolute necessity. In a few weeks more he would have broken down the government.” Gideon Welles reflected the administration’s wait-and-see attitude: “Burnside will try to do well—is patriotic and amiable, and had he greater power and grasp would make an acceptable if not a great General. . . . We shall see what Burnside can do and how he will be seconded by other generals and the War Department.”

McClellan told his wife, “Poor Burn feels dreadfully, almost crazy” about taking the command. In the same vein, he wrote in a note to Mrs. Burnside that her husband “is as sorry to assume command as I am to give it up. Much more so.” Burnside’s reluctance hardly generated confidence among his lieutenants. George Meade heard from McClellan that at first “B. refused to take the command, said it would ruin the army & the country & he would not be an agent in any such work.” In Otis Howard’s opinion, “I should feel safer with McClellan to finish what he had planned & was executing so well. . . . I fear we hav’nt a better man.” To Alpheus Williams, “Burnside is a most agreeable, companionable gentleman and a good officer, but he is not regarded by officers who know him best as equal to McClellan in any respect.” Baldy Smith hoped Burnside would accept advice from those (Smith in particular) who “had his interests at heart.” Darius Couch asserted, in the smug comfort of hindsight, “We did not think that he had the military ability to command the Army of the Potomac.” But William Franklin saw the need to tamp down a potentially volatile transfer of power. He told his wife, “The feeling of the Army is excessive indignation. Every one likes Burnside, however, and I think that he is the only one who could have been chosen with whom things would have gone on so quietly.”

Burnside’s approach to high command was a sharp contrast to the imperial trappings of the Young Napoleon. The new commanding general was a large man of thirty-eight years, with luxuriant muttonchop whiskers—the model for sideburns—and an unpretentious manner. Daniel R. Larned of his staff told his sister, “I wish you could see the General commanding the Army of the Potomac footing it into camp without any orderlies—without his shoulder straps, belt or sword.” His tent, unlike McClellan’s, “is full all the time, & it is as informal as you please.” A guard at headquarters wrote his parents, “Old B. came out of his tent at 2 1/2 o’clock this morning in his shirt & warmed his butt at the fire before his quarters, he is a jolly bugger & will joke with a private as quick as an officer.” But Burnside took his new responsibilities, however unwelcome, very seriously. “He is working night & day . . . ,” Larned wrote. “He has slept but little and is most arduous in his labors and does not spare himself even for the common necessities of health.”

Burnside was granted little time for reflection. With the dispatch assigning him the command came one from General Halleck ordering him to “report the position of your troops, and what you purpose doing with them.” He was prompt to submit a plan of campaign—a plan in debt to McClellan’s thinking on the matter.

In starting across the Potomac on October 26, 1862 McClellan had asked Herman Haupt, superintendent of military railroads, for a report on the lines needed to supply an advance into Virginia—the Manassas Gap and the Orange & Alexandria. He asked about the wharves at Aquia Landing, on the lower Potomac, and about the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac from Aquia to Falmouth, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, and about “repairing that road in season to use it for the purposes of this campaign.”

Haupt reported the Manassas Gap operable but limited in capacity. The Orange & Alexandria would have to meet the army’s immediate needs, he said. Restoring port facilities at Aquia Landing and the R. F. & P. to Falmouth (to Haupt’s disgust, both had been unnecessarily left in ruins by Burnside in evacuating the area in September) received a priority go-ahead. Haupt’s verdict: to support an advance for any distance beyond Warrenton, the O. & A. would be stretched beyond its capacity to supply an army of 100,000 men; “the Orange & Alexandria Railroad alone will be a very insecure reliance.”

Beyond the operational limits of the O. & A., there was the threat of raids on the line by John Singleton Mosby’s guerrilla band, and the greater threat by Jeb Stuart, whose most recent “ride around McClellan” was a raw memory in the Potomac army. McClellan’s interest in Aquia Landing and the Aquia–Falmouth rail line decided him, on November 6, to order chief engineer James C. Duane to shift the army’s bridge train from the Potomac crossing to Washington for potential use in bridging the Rappahannock—indicating that the Young Napoleon was considering a new road to Richmond by way of Fredericksburg. Burnside testified that before the change of command he suggested the Fredericksburg route to McClellan, and McClellan “partially agreed with me.” Staff man Daniel Larned remarked that Burnside inherited “a campaign planned & begun by another person & carried on, not as the General would have done perhaps, had he begun it.”

On November 9 Burnside submitted his plan of campaign. He would open with a feint toward the Rebels at Culpeper, then turn southeast and “make a rapid move of the whole force to Fredericksburg, with a view to a movement upon Richmond from that point.” In rejecting an advance astride the Orange & Alexandria, he argued that the enemy would simply fall back along his communications, drawing the Federals farther and farther from their base along a vulnerable, ever-lengthening supply line. But by seizing Fredericksburg the Potomac army would be on the shortest, most direct overland route to Richmond while always staying between the enemy and Washington.

Burnside’s plan rested on three assumptions. First, the Federals would gain a march or two on Lee, reach Falmouth and cross the Rappahannock on pontoon bridges laid in timely fashion, and seize lightly guarded Fredericksburg. Second, Herman Haupt’s construction crews would repair the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac to Falmouth, rebuild the rail bridge across the river, then repair the line behind the advancing Potomac army as fast as the Rebels wrecked it. Third, the R. F. & P. would be supplied from the restored Aquia Landing wharfs and by additional waterborne stores along the way. Granted these assumptions and these circumstances, it was a perfectly sound plan. The administration, wrote Burnside, “will readily comprehend the embarrassments which surround me in taking command of this army at this place and at this season of the year.” Nevertheless, “I will endeavor, with all my ability, to bring this campaign to a successful issue.”

Halleck met with Burnside at Warrenton on November 12, bringing with him railroad man Haupt and Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs. By Burnside’s account, there was a debate. Halleck was “strongly in favor” of continuing the march toward Culpeper and beyond, while “my own plan was as strongly adhered to by me.” This was a revived Henry Halleck, shed at last of insolent McClellan and looking to oversee his successor. The general-in-chief spoke for Lincoln’s “inside track” to Richmond, but thanks to McClellan’s modest pace the Rebels had blocked the inside track, ending that race before it began. Haupt supported Burnside’s Fredericksburg plan, stressing the grave difficulties of supporting the Potomac army entirely by means of the Orange & Alexandria. (He hardly needed to remind his listeners of the O. & A.’s fate just 25 miles from Washington during Pope’s campaign.) Furthermore, supplying and supporting the army by water and rail from Aquia Landing would greatly simplify Quartermaster Meigs’s task.

An alternative plan—the duplicitous Halleck afterward described it (falsely) as the plan he and Lincoln approved—was for the army to continue southward, ford the upper reaches of the Rappahannock and Rapidan rivers, and reach Fredericksburg via the south bank of the Rappahannock. While this eliminated the risks of forcing a river crossing at Fredericksburg, it relied on the unreliable O. & A., and ran its own risks of being attacked in flank or rear by the Rebels. Burnside rejected this plan as rife with the unexpected, notably so for a new commanding general in his first campaign.

Halleck, characteristically, would not make a decision, saying only that he would take the matter to the president. Before he left, Burnside explained that McClellan’s chief engineer James Duane had already, on November 6, ordered the army’s bridge train moved from the Potomac crossing at Berlin, Maryland, to Washington for use in the new campaign. He wanted Halleck to apply his authority to directing the bridge train at Washington to meet the army on the Rappahannock—once the army marched it would be out of telegraphic communication until it reached Falmouth. On the evening of November 12 Halleck sent a telegram from Warrenton to Brigadier General Daniel P. Woodbury, commanding the engineer brigade at Washington, telling him to order the pontoons and bridge materials to Aquia Creek. He gave Woodbury no details of the purpose of the order nor any timetable nor any priority.

On his return to the capital, Halleck showed Lincoln Burnside’s plan and the arguments regarding it, and the president determined to give his new general his head. Halleck telegraphed Burnside on November 14, “The President has just assented to your plan. He thinks it will succeed, if you move very rapidly; otherwise not.” The next day Burnside set the Army of the Potomac on the march to Falmouth. “I think the Army has got over the depression caused by McClellan’s removal and it is in good heart for anything,” wrote Lieutenant Henry Ropes, 20th Massachusetts, “but in case of serious reverse, there would be a great want of confidence.”


Burnside reorganized the army for the new campaign. He formalized the three-wing structure McClellan had utilized for the march into Maryland, calling them grand divisions and giving them two corps each. He did this to simplify the exercise of command, but also to settle the matter of what to do with Edwin Sumner. McClellan’s attempt to angle Sumner off into a departmental posting had failed, and now he was back from leave, determined not to give away any of his standing. To return Sumner to the Second Corps would bump a string of generals down the command ladder. Giving Sumner the Right Grand Division solved the problem. The Center Grand Division went to Hooker, recovered from his Antietam wound. Fighting Joe was no favorite of Burnside’s, but he had seniority and was a newspaper hero for Antietam and could hardly be ignored. William Franklin, with seniority and on good terms with Burnside, was Left Grand Division commander. Being new to the Potomac army, Burnside let seniority be his guide in changes and filling posts.

Sumner’s Right Grand Division comprised the Second and Ninth Corps. Couch led the Second, Sumner’s old command, with division heads William H. French, Winfield Hancock (replacing the dead Israel Richardson), and Otis Howard (replacing the wounded John Sedgwick). The Ninth Corps, once Burnside’s, then Cox’s, now Orlando B. Willcox’s, had divisions under William W. Burns, Samuel D. Sturgis, and George W. Getty (replacing the dead Isaac Rodman).

Joe Hooker’s Center Grand Division contained the Third and Fifth Corps. The Third, Sam Heintzelman’s since its founding, was posted in Washington during the Maryland campaign and largely revamped. Heintzelman was shifted to departmental command and replaced by George Stoneman, McClellan’s onetime chief of cavalry. Phil Kearny’s old division went to David Birney and Hooker’s old division to political general Dan Sickles. Stoneman’s third division was new, two brigades under Amiel W. Whipple, West Point 1841, a topographical engineer. Fitz John Porter’s Fifth Corps, untested at Antietam, had a new commander, Daniel Butterfield. Butterfield had started in Robert Patterson’s old Army of the Shenandoah and fought his brigade with distinction at Gaines’s Mill. His three divisions were led by Charles Griffin, replacing the transferred George Morell; by George Sykes with his regulars; and by Andrew Humphreys with his rookies.

On learning of McClellan’s dismissal, Fitz John Porter wrote New York World editor Marble, “You may soon expect to hear my head is lopped.” He added, “My opinion of it [Pope’s campaign] predicting disaster is in their possession and brought up against me as proof of intention to cause disaster.” He predicted his fate. The order relieving McClellan also relieved Porter from the Fifth Corps. On November 25 army headquarters announced a general court-martial convened “for the trial of Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, U.S. Volunteers.” Porter would be charged with disobeying orders and misbehavior before the enemy at Second Bull Run. It seemed that John Pope had his revenge, at least on Porter; Pope’s charges against William Franklin and Charles Griffin were dropped. In his diary David Strother, whose connection with Porter dated back to Patterson’s Army of the Shenandoah, blamed Porter for McClellan’s downfall: “Fitz John Porter with his elegant address and insinuating plausibility, technical power, and total want of judgment has been the evil genius, has ruined him as he did Patterson.” Following McClellan into military exile, Porter awaited trial.

William Franklin’s Left Grand Division contained the First and Sixth Corps. The three divisions of John Reynolds’s First Corps were commanded by Abner Doubleday, George Meade, and John Gibbon (replacing the injured James Ricketts). The Sixth Corps went to Baldy Smith after Franklin’s advancement. Smith’s three divisions were newly led: W.T.H. Brooks replaced Henry Slocum, promoted to command the Twelfth Corps; John Newton replaced Darius Couch, promoted to command the Second Corps; and Albion P. Howe, from the old Fourth Corps, took Baldy Smith’s division.

Alfred Pleasonton continued to head the army’s mounted arm, comprising the brigades of John F. Farnsworth, David M. Gregg, and William W. Averell. Henry Hunt, now brigadier general, remained chief of artillery. Franz Sigel’s Eleventh Corps (First Corps in the old Army of Virginia) was designated a general reserve for the Potomac army, and when Burnside set off for Falmouth, Sigel covered Washington. Henry Slocum’s Twelfth Corps (Second Corps, Army of Virginia) remained at Harper’s Ferry to guard the Potomac line.

Ambrose Burnside’s army was in all but its commander’s name still George McClellan’s army. Halleck granted Burnside full powers to post or remove any officers except corps commanders (the president’s prerogative), but his only real change was the grand divisions format—and that copied from McClellan. Most generals were McClellan’s generals. In addition to the new grand division commanders, all six corps commanders were new, as were twelve of the eighteen divisional commanders and thirty-five of the fifty-one brigade commanders. Burnside’s experience in battle with his lieutenants was minimal—limited at South Mountain to Jesse Reno, who was killed, and to Joe Hooker, who marched to his own drum; limited at Antietam to Jacob Cox, now gone from the army. In the evolving campaign Burnside would have to forge relationships with his generals, and they with him, on the fly. He confided to Franklin that the “awful responsibility” of command weighed on him and left him sleepless. “I pitied Burnside exceedingly,” Franklin told his wife.

McClellan left the army short-staffed, taking away with him nearly all the headquarters staff; he needed them, he said, to help prepare the report of his command tenure. (Not missed among the departed was the bumbling Allan Pinkerton.) Burnside had capable John G. Parke as chief of staff, but his administrative grip on the army was not very sure.

The moment the Army of the Potomac crossed the Potomac it began to lay a hard hand on the Virginia countryside. John Pope’s general order permitting his army to forage freely in enemy country had migrated into McClellan’s army (now Burnside’s army) and been widely accepted there. “The people here are all rebels,” a Massachusetts soldier told his wife. “We have had a grand time, killing and eating their sheep, cattle and poultry. One farmer here lost nearly three hundred sheep the first night our boys encamped.” In the case of a Union man’s property a guard would be detailed to protect his goods. Otherwise, “Our officers say nothing if we take a rebel’s turkeys, hens, or sheep to eat; they like their share.”

Marsena Patrick, the new provost marshal, had witnessed the demoralizing effect of Pope’s foraging order on the Army of Virginia and he dreaded its spread to the supposedly better-behaved Army of the Potomac. “I am distressed to death with the plundering & marauding,” he told his diary. “I am sending out detachments in all directions & hope to capture some of the villains engaged in these operations.” Cavalry was the worst, “stealing, ravaging, burning, robbing. . . .” The conduct of William Averell’s cavalry brigade “makes one’s blood boil . . . little better than fiends in human shape.”

On November 14, the day before the army was to start for Falmouth, General Burnside, “feeling uneasy,” had his chief engineer C. B. Comstock telegraph the engineer brigade at Washington to be sure the bridge train sent to the capital from Berlin by Duane’s November 6 order was ready to march. Burnside also called for a second bridge train to be “mounted and horsed as soon as possible” to follow the first train.

Daniel Woodbury, head of the engineer brigade, replied the same day that pontoons were only just then starting to arrive from Berlin. He said it would be, at best, two or three days before all the components of a train could be gathered and mounted and ready to march. He added that Duane’s November 6 order to send the bridging materials to Washington was only received at Berlin on the afternoon of November 12. He offered no explanation why a telegraphed order had required six days to reach its destination. With that, the first prerequisite of Burnside’s campaign—steal a march on the Rebels and bridge the Rappahannock and seize Fredericksburg in one thrust—was endangered before it even began.

Pinning responsibility for the six-day delay proved elusive. As of November 6 McClellan’s advance had broken communication with Berlin, and Captain Duane sent the telegraphed order via Washington . . . where the War Department telegraph office, by inscrutable logic, forwarded the order to Berlin by mail, aboard a leisurely packet on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal. (The Washington–Berlin telegraph line was fully functioning.) This blunder ought to have been caught—except that in the upheaval of McClellan’s dismissal Duane failed to follow up when Berlin did not acknowledge his order. Forgetful Duane (or indifferent Duane; it was he at Antietam who misrepresented the ford on Burnside’s front) then departed the Potomac army along with McClellan’s staff. Burnside trusted Halleck to oversee Woodbury’s engineer brigade at the capital, supposing he “fully covered the case.” A trust misplaced. “I had advised against the Fredericksburg base from the beginning,” Halleck would say, and he lifted not a finger for its support.

Burnside told Woodbury to send the second bridge train by water to Aquia Landing, and went ahead as planned. On November 15 Sumner’s Right Grand Division started for Falmouth. Bull Sumner covered the 40 miles at a fast pace and reached Falmouth on the 17th, the rest of the army not far behind, with Burnside himself arriving on the 19th. Where, he asked, was the bridge train?

A bridge train might have forty pontoons, each mounted on a specially adapted wagon that also carried the connecting timbers, or balks; fifteen other adapted wagons for the cross planks, or chesses; and additional wagons with cables, gear, and tools—perhaps sixty wagons all told, with six-horse teams. At Berlin Major Ira Spaulding of the engineers hastily improvised after he finally received his orders on November 12. He took up the Potomac bridges, had the heavy pontoons towed down the C. & O. Canal to Washington, and sent as many of the lightened wagons overland as he had teams to haul them. In the capital Major Spaulding took up his task anew, laboring with Meigs’s quartermasters to assemble and mount a train for the overland march. It was a slow process, requiring on short notice 270 fresh horses to be collected, harnessed, and shoed.

General Woodbury would claim that before November 14 “no one informed me that the success of any important movement depended in the slightest degree upon a pontoon train to leave Washington by land.” Consequently, surveying the unpromising situation, he went to Halleck and proposed a five-day delay in Burnside’s advance. This would put the bridge train back on schedule with the army. Burnside’s march could be halted with no harm to the plan. By Woodbury’s testimony, Old Brains “replied that he would do nothing to delay for an instant the advance of the army upon Richmond.” His proposal, said Woodbury, would not cause delay but prevent it. But Halleck’s witless response stood. Burnside was not informed or consulted. His march proceeded on the assumption the bridge train would not be unduly delayed.

Across the Rappahannock on Pontoon Bridges II

Alfred Waud sketched the 50th New York Engineers, supported by artillery, assembling a pontoon bridge across the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg on December 11.

To act on Burnside’s call for a second bridge train, Woodbury had pontoons “rafted” for towing down the Potomac by steamer. He optimistically expected that the wagons and teams that had delivered the land train would transport these second-train pontoons to Falmouth. The pontoons arrived on November 18, but no wagons and teams were waiting. Delay upon delay had dogged the land train; it did not even leave Washington until the 19th.

To try and make the second train operational, Woodbury extemporized, loading the needed pontoon wagons aboard barges for the journey down the Potomac, only to be held up by a winter storm. The land train was bogged down by interminable rain. Stalled at the Occoquan River, unable to reach either Falmouth or Aquia by road, the desperate engineers rafted the pontoons, disassembled the wagons, and loaded them aboard for towing by a steamer, with the teams going on by road. At last, after vast effort and great difficulties, the two trains were landed, assembled, and reached Falmouth . . . on November 24–25.

Without the initial six-day delay, with initiative and planning in Washington, or with the army’s march held up as Woodbury suggested and Halleck rejected, one or both bridge trains ought to have arrived at Falmouth in concert with the army. Deceitful Halleck denied everything, even that Woodbury had come to him about delaying the march. As it was, Burnside and the Army of the Potomac hunkered down at Falmouth and watched a full week’s worth of opportunity slip away while waiting for the pontoons. Across the Rappahannock, at Fredericksburg, the Army of Northern Virginia assembled in force.

In notable contrast to McClellan, the new commanding general accommodated advice, proposals, and plans from his officer corps. General Burnside, said Chief of Staff Parke, “would not think of making an important movement of this army without full consultation with his generals.” Bull Sumner, finding Fredericksburg empty of Confederates on reaching Falmouth November 17, proposed to Burnside that he cross a force at a nearby ford and seize the town. He was told it was best they first secure their communications. Sumner could appreciate that; he remembered only too well the consequences at Seven Pines “of getting astride of a river. . . .”

Joe Hooker came up with a plan of more ambition, which he submitted to Burnside on November 19 (sending a copy to his prospective patron, Secretary Stanton). With his Center Grand Division, Fighting Joe proposed to cross the Rappahannock well upstream at U.S. Ford and swing south and east to plant his 40,000 men on the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac at Hanover Junction, south of Fredericksburg. He would draw his supplies from a new depot at Port Royal, well downstream on the Rappahannock. His move should catch the Rebels off-guard, for they “have counted on the McClellan delays for a long while.” In any case he was strong enough to cope with any Rebels his move might stir up. Hooker’s stated objective would have warmed Mr. Lincoln’s heart: “If Jackson was at Chester Gap on Friday last, we ought to be able to reach Richmond in advance of the concentration of the enemy’s forces.”

Burnside replied that Hooker’s proposal “would be a very brilliant one” and would possibly succeed, but he thought it “a little premature.” It was 36 miles to the R. F. & P. via U.S. Ford; with the heavy rains of the past two days there was a question of the ford’s viability; the uncertainty of the pontoons’ arrival made support for Hooker’s column problematical. (Boldness, it seemed, was as lacking in Burnside as in McClellan.) To Secretary Stanton on December 4 Hooker grumbled that if Burnside had approved crossing the Rappahannock when they had the chance, they would not now be suffering “the embarrassments arising from the passage of that river, the greatest obstacle between this and Richmond.”

Burnside learned on November 19, the day he reached Falmouth, that his bridge train was only that day leaving Washington, strong evidence his plan to cross at Fredericksburg was in jeopardy. Nevertheless, he rejected Hooker’s idea for a crossing upstream, and made no effort to investigate a downstream crossing either. He stubbornly stayed where he was, waiting (as McClellan would say) for something to turn up—in this case, pontoons.

The days passed and Burnside progressed from uneasy to frustrated to baffled as to what to do. Sumner had called on Fredericksburg’s mayor to surrender the town: “Women & children, the aged & infirm” should evacuate. The negotiations revealed that Longstreet’s corps was coming on the scene. Marsena Patrick noted in his diary, “Burnside feels very blue. Lee & the whole Secesh Army are, or will be, in our front.” Burnside made only mild complaint to Halleck about the nonarrival of the pontoons, but Daniel Larned of his staff affixed the blame directly: “Had the authorities at Washington executed their part of the plan with one half the promptness and faithfulness that Burnside has done his, our command would have occupied the City of Fredericksburg three days ago. . . . We are utterly helpless until our pontoon trains arrive.”

On November 22 General Sumner dined with Generals Hooker, Meagher, and Pleasonton, wherein “all agree our march to Richmond will be contested inch by inch.” This inspired Sumner to again offer his thoughts to the general commanding. With the enemy now present in force across the river, he cautioned that throwing bridges “directly over to the town, might be attended with great loss” from artillery and from “every house within musket range. . . .” He proposed instead establishing a “grand battery” of thirty or more heavy guns a mile or so downstream, where the far shore was an open plain, “which would effectually sweep off every thing for a long distance.” The navy might add gunboats to the barrage. Against this fire the enemy would be unable to throw up works to prevent the bridge building. Sumner observed that the Rebels’ position on the high ground behind the town looked very strong. But cross below, form the whole force in line of battle, “then by a determined march, turn their right flank, is it not probable that we should force them from the field?” Burnside took note for further consideration.

“We in this Army think this whole campaign is a gross military mistake,” force-fed by Radical politicians in Washington, wrote William Franklin; the true road to Richmond, he told his wife, “is by a more Southern route with less land travel.” John Gibbon agreed, and submitted such a plan to headquarters—hold a bluff at Fredericksburg, where the chance for a surprise crossing had passed, take a new base at Suffolk, and operate up the James River to seize the railroad hub of Petersburg. “Once in possession of Petersburg, Richmond will fall.” Burnside recognized Gibbon’s plan as too McClellanesque for the occasion.

Mr. Lincoln was monitoring his new general and became concerned enough that he signaled him they should meet at Aquia Landing for consultation. They met aboard the steamer Baltimore on November 27. The president made a memorandum of the conversation: Burnside said he could take to battle about 110,000 men, as many as he could handle “to advantage.” Their spirits were good. He was committed to crossing the Rappahannock—he offered nothing specific about that—and driving the enemy away, but admitted it would be “somewhat risky.”

“I wish the case to stand more favorable than this in two respects,” Lincoln wrote. First, he wanted the river crossing “nearly free from risk.” Second, he did not want the enemy falling back unimpeded to Richmond’s defenses. He proposed a plan of his own. While Burnside paused where he was, a 25,000-man force would take post on the south bank of the Rappahannock downstream at Port Royal to divert Fredericksburg’s defenders. A second 25,000-man force, escorted by gunboats, would ascend the York and Pamunkey rivers to near Hanover Junction on the R. F. & P. (Hooker’s target, reached by the back door) to block the Rebels’ escape route. “Then, if Gen. B. succeeds in driving the enemy from Fredericksburg, he the enemy no longer has the road to Richmond.”

On November 29 Burnside journeyed to Washington to discuss this new plan with the president and Halleck. Neither general favored it, and Lincoln added a note to his memorandum: “The above plan, proposed by me, was rejected by Gen. Halleck & Gen. Burnside, on the ground that we could not raise and put in position, the Pamunkey force without too much waste of time.” Turning aside Lincoln’s idea, gaining no counsel from Halleck, Burnside returned to Falmouth no wiser about what he should do.

His thoughts finally turned to a downriver crossing, at a bend called Skinker’s Neck a dozen miles from Falmouth. He briefed his generals on December 3 and scheduled the march for the 5th. Irreverent Hooker spoke up that he would like to be on the other shore with 50,000 men and dare anyone to cross. Skinker’s Neck was in fact an idea with promise . . . if attempted ten days earlier upon the arrival of the first bridge train. Now Stonewall Jackson’s corps was occupying the downstream river line. The march was well started when word came that Skinker’s Neck was heavily guarded. The marchers turned back to camp.

Originally Ambrose Burnside had sought, by speed or by maneuver, a new road to Richmond, flushing the enemy into the open. But through miscue and misadventure and mismanagement that opportunity was gone. The Army of Northern Virginia was directly across the river, entrenching as he watched. Afterward Burnside testified to his rationale for fighting at Fredericksburg: “I felt we had better cross here; that we would have a more decisive engagement here, and that if we succeeded in defeating the enemy here, we could break up the whole of their army here, which I think is now the most desirable thing, not even second to the taking of Richmond.” Beforehand he assured Baldy Smith he would make the crossing “so promptly that he should surprise Lee, that he knew where Lee’s troops were, and that the heart of the movement consisted in the surprise.”

At noon on Tuesday, December 9, Burnside called in Sumner, Hooker, and Franklin, his three grand division commanders, and outlined the plan he had settled on. Sumner announced to his staff “the determination to cross the Rappahannock with the Army at daybreak Thursday morning. . . .” Sumner’s Right Grand Division would have the advance, crossing on three pontoon bridges to be laid directly opposite Fredericksburg “under at least 150 cannon on our shore.” Hooker then to cross as a reserve. Crossing “a mile or two below on 2 bridges” would be Franklin’s Left Grand Division. To Washington Burnside staked his claim: “I think now that the enemy will be more surprised by a crossing immediately in our front than in any other part of the river.” His three senior commanders, he said, “coincide with me in this opinion.”

What Sumner had warned Burnside would happen, happened—sharpshooters filled Fredericksburg’s riverfront buildings and their fire riddled the engineer teams and drove them back, leaving the three bridges unfinished about midstream. The artillery Burnside counted on to clear the way pounded the opposite shore, but each time the engineers returned to work the sharpshooters returned to their postings and chased them back. Franklin proposed that he cross the lower bridges and flank the sharpshooters. Burnside rejected that as too risky, insisting on establishing the bridgeheads simultaneously. He demanded the engineers complete the bridges “whatever the cost.”

Major Ira Spaulding of the engineers, who had displayed great initiative in getting his bridge train through hell and high water to Falmouth, proposed a solution to the dilemma—row infantry across in pontoon boats to scour the sharpshooters out of their hiding places. The idea got to General Hunt, who with Burnside’s approval sought volunteers. In Colonel Norman J. Hall’s brigade, Hall volunteered the 7th Michigan, the regiment he had led to war, to cross at the upper bridges. Colonel Harrison S. Fairchild’s 89th New York was tapped to cross at the middle bridge. Hunt laid on the heaviest shelling yet, driving the sharpshooters to cover, and the little fleet was poled and paddled with all speed across the river. There were casualties, but the two regiments made landings on the enemy shore. Support followed. Watchers on the Yankee shore went “wild with excitement, cheering and yelling like Comanche Indians.”

In house-to-house fighting the Confederates were driven away and the engineers completed the three Fredericksburg bridges, but the hour was late. Otis Howard’s Second Corps division crossed and by dark had secured the bridgehead. Charles Devens’s brigade, Sixth Corps, secured the lower bridges site. It had been a long and difficult day, especially for the engineers, but Burnside accepted it as a ponderous first step in a deliberate challenge to Lee. “I expect to cross the rest of my command tomorrow,” Burnside told Halleck.

Early on December 12 Burnside endorsed a Franklin dispatch, “As soon as he and Sumner are over, attack simultaneously.” Nothing came of this spare directive, for it required the entire day to get the army across the river and into position to advance . . . the next day. General Lee watched, detected no Yankee deceptions, and called in Stonewall Jackson from his downriver postings. The entire Army of Northern Virginia was at hand, ready for whatever General Burnside might attempt. These latest of the many delays ended Burnside’s last hope for catching the Rebels unwary or out of position. The crossing, John Reynolds contended, “ought to have been a surprise, and we should have advanced at once and carried the heights as was intended.”

On the low ridge called Marye’s Heights behind Fredericksburg Longstreet had spent three weeks entrenching and posting batteries. At the base of the ridge he had infantry thickly ranked along the Telegraph Road behind a chest-high stone wall—analogous to the Sunken Road at Antietam. Marye’s Heights ended at Hazel Run; from there Jackson took post on low wooded hills extending to Hamilton’s Crossing on the R. F. & P. Massaponax Creek marked the end of a battle line six miles long.

Burnside’s orders set Sumner’s objective on the right as “the heights that command the Plank road and the Telegraph road,” that is, Marye’s Heights. Franklin on the left was to “move down the old Richmond road, in the direction of the railroad,” referring to the Richmond Stage Road from Fredericksburg that paralleled the river and the R. F. & P. Hooker’s Center Grand Division would stand ready to support either Sumner or Franklin as need be. Nothing was said of timing, of priorities, or in Franklin’s case, of objective. Unlike his predecessor, Ambrose Burnside was not haunted by the underdog’s role. While he testified to receiving estimates of enemy numbers as high as 200,000, he made his own estimate—less than 100,000. (Lee’s actual count was about 78,500.)

Sumner’s command—Second and Ninth Corps—had required December 12 to crowd across the three bridges into Fredericksburg. The shelling on the 11th had chased away the last few residents and the town was empty. The troops stood idle, stacking arms and wandering the streets. When Provost Marshal Marsena Patrick reached the scene, “a horrible sight presented itself. All the buildings more or less battered with shells, roofs & walls all full of holes & the churches with their broken windows & shattered walls looking desolate enough.” But that was not the worst of it: “The Soldierly were sacking the town! Every house and Store was being gutted!”

Few restraints had marked the Potomac army’s passage through Virginia since late October. No restraints marked it now. The sack began with a search for food in the abandoned dwellings, then wine cellars and liquor stocks were raided, fueling a rising tide of plunder and vandalism. Fredericksburg’s colonial heritage was ransacked and its artifacts, from carpets to libraries to paintings to spinets, defaced or thrown into the streets. Powerless to restore order, Patrick posted the bridges to at least stop looters from stealing away with their booty. Officers of every rank looked the other way. “Never was a city more thoroughly sacked,” wrote a shocked New Hampshire colonel. “The conduct of our men and officers too is atrocious their object seems to be to destroy what they cant steal & to steal all they can.” In the annals of the Army of the Potomac it was the ugliest of days; for its officer corps, the most unconscionable of days.

While their troops crossed at the lower bridges—christened Franklin’s Crossing—Franklin and John Reynolds (First Corps) and Baldy Smith (Sixth Corps) discussed their next move. Absent fresh orders from headquarters, they agreed, said Smith, that the Left Grand Division should form its 40,000 men “into columns of assault on the right and left of the Richmond road,” carry Hamilton’s Crossing on the railroad, “and turn Lee’s right flank at any cost.”

At early evening on the 12th Burnside arrived at Franklin’s headquarters to inspect the position and to settle on a plan for the next day. By the accounts of Franklin and Smith, Burnside was attentive and responsive to their proposed plan of attack. Franklin termed it “a long consultation.” Smith had Burnside responding, “Yes! Yes!” to their objective—“turn Lee’s right flank at any cost.” This matched Sumner’s November 23 plan that Burnside had already adopted regarding the Franklin’s Crossing site—after crossing, “by a determined march, turn their right flank.” It seems clear that Sumner’s forceful plan was already on Burnside’s mind when he heard more or less the same plan from Franklin, Smith, and Reynolds. To be sure, theirs did not include the “whole force” as Sumner’s did. Yet Franklin’s two full army corps, six divisions, surely counted enough for the task at hand. Burnside promised two of Hooker’s divisions to hold the bridges when Franklin’s flanking attack commenced—raising Franklin’s total to some 60,000 men—and to send written orders for the morrow.

In consequence of those orders, received at 7:30 the next morning, Franklin afterward raised an elaborate construct to defend his conduct when he went to battle on December 13. This construct revealed striking echoes of his last exercise of independent command, at Crampton’s Gap on South Mountain in September, where he misjudged his assignment, shunned both initiative and responsibility, and in his caution quite misread the battlefield.

Ambrose Burnside was strained and wanting sleep, and his orders were poorly framed and hardly a model of clarity. Still, that fails to account for the contrary interpretation Franklin put on them. If at their December 12 council Franklin and his generals came to a firm agreement (as they claimed) with Burnside about a full-blooded assault to turn Lee’s right, then Burnside’s December 13 orders, however awkward the phrasing, took as a given a fully discussed, already-agreed-upon plan.

“The general commanding,” the orders read, “directs that you keep your whole command in position for a rapid movement down the old Richmond road, and you will send out at once a division at least . . . to seize, if possible, the height near Captain Hamilton’s”—Prospect Hill, overlooking Hamilton’s Crossing—“taking care to keep it well supported. . . .” Seizing Prospect Hill was necessary to open the way for the Left Grand Division to drive between Hamilton’s Crossing and the Massaponax and into Lee’s rear. Burnside’s orders twice spoke of Franklin employing his “whole command” for the operation. Sumner would meanwhile assault the other end of the Confederate line, Marye’s Heights, thereby compelling “the enemy to evacuate the whole ridge” . . . or so Burnside hoped.

Before the Committee on the Conduct of the War, Franklin testified to his entirely different reading of the December 13 orders: “It meant that there should be what is termed an armed reconnaissance, or an observation in force made of the enemy’s lines, with one division. . . . At that time I had no idea that it was the main attack.” This tortured reading, this convenient forgetting what had been discussed and agreed to at the generals’ council the previous evening, starkly reveals (once again) William Franklin’s incapacity for independent command. He had a telegraphic link with headquarters to clarify his orders if they were “not what we expected.” He did not use it. Nor did he take the lead in posting his forces for prompt action on the 13th. Nor did he pay even lip service to gainfully employing his “whole command.” He confined the Sixth Corps to keeping open a line of retreat and guarding Franklin’s Crossing, even though he had two Third Corps divisions for just that purpose. He assigned the “armed reconnaissance” to John Reynolds.

In the controversy over Franklin’s reading of his orders, Burnside made the incisive point: Surely Franklin realized “I did not cross more than 100,000 over the river to make a reconnaissance.” Writing his wife, Franklin revealed an untrustworthy state of mind on December 13: “It was not successful and I never thought it would be, but I knew that it had to be made to satisfy the Republicans, and we all went at it as well as though it was all right.”

Sumner, good soldier that he was, may have coincided, but certainly with mixed feelings. Burnside had adopted Sumner’s November 23 suggestion for a bridging site a mile or so downstream where the enemy shore was open and vulnerable, but in the same breath he ignored Sumner’s very pointed advisory against throwing bridges across right at Fredericksburg’s well-defended riverfront. Hooker for the moment held his tongue, his grand division having only a follow-up role in the crossing. Franklin too coincided, recognizing that he had the less risky crossing site of the two.

There was no such unanimity among the Right Grand Division generals that evening when Sumner briefed them. Darius Couch wrote that no words were minced: “The general expression was against the plan of crossing the River.” Poor Sumner defended a plan out of loyalty to the commanding general that privately he deplored. Word of the dissenters got back to Burnside, and the next evening he minced no words of his own to the generals gathered at Sumner’s headquarters. Otis Howard quoted him, “Your duty is not to throw cold water, but to aid me loyally with advice and hearty service.” Couch said Burnside “plainly intimated that his subordinates had no right to express any opinion as to his movements.” Burnside took issue with Winfield Hancock’s plaints. Hancock replied that while he had meant no personal discourtesy, it was certain to be “pretty difficult” to contend against an entrenched foe at their crossing site. Still, Hancock pledged his loyal support, as did Couch in defending his division commander. Amidst these professions of fealty, bluff William French joined the gathering and asked, “Is this a Methodist camp-meeting?”15

At an early hour on December 11—day 24 since Sumner arrived at Falmouth and found no bridge train waiting—the engineers hauled pontoons and gear to the riverbank and by first light were well started assembling their bridges. Henry Hunt posted 147 guns for support. Initially fog blanketed the river, and the engineers could be heard but not seen as they labored to anchor their pontoons, link them with timber balks, and lay down planking. Downstream the two lower bridges met only sporadic enemy fire, quickly suppressed, and by 11:00 a.m. both were completed. But Franklin was told to hold up his infantry. The middle bridge crossing, at the lower end of Fredericksburg, and the upper, two-bridge crossing at the upper end of town, progressed only as long as the fog lasted. The Rappahannock here was hardly 140 yards across, and as one of the engineers put it, “For us to attempt to lay a Ponton Bridge right in their very faces seemed like madness.” As the fog lifted the madness turned into “simple murder, that was all.”

Caesar’s Legions at Alesia I

It is not a simple matter to elucidate the number and types of Roman troops involved in the Battle of Alesia. Caesar fails to provide us with even the basic information, let alone give specific mention to the legions involved. We are left, therefore, to supposition and speculation for the most part. Caesar mentions eleven legions specifically in his commentaries on the Gallic campaigns, namely: the First, Sixth, and Seventh to Fifteenth Legions. Suetonius provides another legion, the Fifth, which he says Caesar specifically raised for the battles in Gaul. The Fifth Legion seems to have replaced the First Legion during the Alesia campaign. Armies in Caesar’s legions often had the bull as their emblem, although the adoption of individual emblems was also practised. The following is a brief summary of Caesar’s legions known to have taken part in the Gallic campaigns, and an account of their more important later actions.

Legio V Alaudae – Fifth Legion (‘The Larks’)

This legion was founded in Transalpine Gaul in the 50s BC. Suetonius states that it was raised specifically for the Gallic campaigns. Paid for by Caesar himself, it was only recognized by the Senate afterwards.

‘he added to the legions which he had received from the state others at his own cost, one actually composed of men of Transalpine Gaul and bearing a Gallic name too (for it was called Alauda), which he trained in the Roman tactics and equipped with Roman arms; and later on he gave every man of it citizenship.’

[Suetonius, Lives of the Twelve Caesars, 24]

By including provincials in a Roman legion, Caesar had begun the process of Romanization of the provinces, a practice that continued to the end of the Empire. By allowing provincial citizens to fight he was conferring on them the same rights as those of Roman citizens from mainland Italy. It is interesting to note that the nickname ‘The Larks’ has, at its root, a Gallic term and not a Latin one. This must have emphasized the provincial character of the unit to the rest of the army. The term has been associated with the wearing of feathers, sticking up on the helmet, reminiscent of the feathers on the head of the crested Lark. Then again, it may refer to Gallic-like wings or a crest on the helmet, or even to specifically pointed helmets. It is possible the legion was originally entitled the V Gallica and this might suggest that a distinctive physical characteristic of the legion may have led to a nickname that stuck. Whatever the physical manifestation of the cognomen, the unit certainly seems to have been conspicuous from the first. Following Alesia, the Fifth Legion fought well in the Civil Wars, its role being particularly noted at Thrapsus (Tunisia) in 45BC and Munda (Spain) the following year. The Fifth Legion fought across North Africa and the quality of the men of Caesar’s Fifth Legion is evident from one quote from the battle at Thrapsus:

‘And here we must not omit to notice the bravery of a veteran soldier of the Fifth Legion. For when an elephant which had been wounded and, roused to fury by the pain, ran against an unarmed camp follower, threw him under his feet, and kneeling on him with his whole weight, and brandishing his uplifted trunk, with hideous cries, crushed him to death, the soldier could not refrain from attacking the animal. The elephant, seeing him advance with his javelin in his hand, quitted the dead body of the camp follower, and seizing him with his trunk, wheeled him round in the air. But he, amid all the danger, preserving his presence of mind, ceased not with his sword to strike at the elephant’s trunk, which enwrapped him, and the animal, at last overcome with the pain, quitted the soldier, and fled to the rest with hideous cries.’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 84]

It was this event that won the legion the emblem of the elephant. In the Civil Wars both Caesar’s and Pompey’s armies fought with prolonged lines of fortifications, each attempting to gain a better position to strike out at the other. On one such occasion men of the Fifth Legion are again mentioned. Caesar’s forces were attacked while undertaking construction of the fortifications and so two centurions from the Fifth Legion made an attempt to stabilize the situation:

‘two centurions of the Fifth Legion passed the river, and restored the battle; when, pressing upon the enemy with astonishing bravery, one of them fell overwhelmed by the multitude of darts discharged from above. The other continued the combat for some time, but seeing himself in danger of being surrounded, endeavoured to make good his retreat, but stumbled and fell. His death being known, the enemy crowded together in still greater numbers, upon which our cavalry passed the river, and drove them back to their entrenchments.’

[Caesar, The Spanish Wars, 23]

After the Civil Wars the Fifth Legion may have been disbanded, but it was reformed later under the control of Marcus Antonius in the 30s BC, possibly fighting at Actium. In the empire Augustus created in the wake of the Republic, the Fifth Legion fought in the Western Empire until their defeat and disbandment in the Batavian revolt of AD69.

Legio VI Ferrata – Sixth Legion (‘Ironclad’)

Another legion created for the Gallic War in 52BC, it was possibly raised in Cisalpine Gaul, although little is known about its origins. The title Ferrata refers to either the legion’s iron will or some form of iron equipment. The term might be equated with the more modern term Cuirassier. Metallic armour of the period was usually mail links, so using the distinguishing term ‘Ferrata’ may have been a deliberate attempt to mark the unit out for its individualistic style of armour. Caesar mentions that the Sixth Legion was stationed at Saône, along with the Fourteenth, through the winter of 51BC, so its presence there means it was likely to have previously taken part in the Battle of Alesia. After the Gallic campaigns a ‘Sixth Legion’ is mentioned fighting in the Civil War on Pompey’s side. In Africa this legion deserted to Caesar, along with the Fourth Legion, so may have been Caesar’s old legion reverting to their old commander. Later, the Sixth Legion is identified as fighting in both Egypt and Syria. At Zela (now in modern-day Turkey) the Sixth Legion, although under strength from fighting in Egypt, fought well against a surprise attack by Pharnaces:

‘After a sharp and obstinate conflict, victory began to declare for us on the right wing, where the Sixth Legion was posted. The enemy there were totally overthrown, but, in the centre and left, the battle was long and doubtful; however, with the assistance of the gods, we at last prevailed there also, and drove them with the utmost precipitation down the hill which they had so easily ascended before.’

[Caesar, The Alexandrian War, 76]

Caesar later ordered the Sixth Legion to return to Italy to receive the honours and rewards it had won. In the Spanish War the Sixth Legion was again caught in a surprise attack, this time from Pompey’s forces:

‘About nine at night, the besieged, according to custom, spent a considerable time in casting fire and darts upon our soldiers, and wounded a great number of men. At daybreak they sallied upon the Sixth Legion, while we were busy at the works, and began a sharp contest, in which, however, our men got the better, though the besieged had the advantage of the higher ground. Those who had begun the attack, being vigorously opposed on our side, notwithstanding all the inconveniences we fought under, were at length obliged to retire into the town, with many wounds.’

[Caesar, The Spanish War, 12]

After the Civil Wars the Sixth Legion remained in the east and was commanded by Marcus Antonius in the 30s BC. During the Empire the legion returned to the east, where it ended its days in the third century AD. The legion’s emblem was the she-wolf and twins – symbolic of the Romulus and Remus myth.

Legio VII – Seventh Legion

Caesar often mentions the Seventh Legion, confirming its presence in the invasion of Gaul in 58BC, fighting against the Nervii in 57BC, again in the Veneti campaign of 56BC and also its involvement in both the British campaigns in 55BC and 54BC. During Vercingetorix’s revolt the Seventh Legion fought under Labienus at Paris:

‘But when the issue of the victory was still uncertain, and the circumstances which were taking place on the left wing were announced to the tribunes of the Seventh Legion, they faced about their legion to the enemy’s rear and attacked it: not even then did any one retreat, but all were surrounded and slain.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 62]

After the defeat of the Parisii, the remnants of the Seventh followed Labienus and united with Caesar before the march to Alesia. It is likely that they were in the heavy fighting with Labienus on the foot of Mont Réa. Following Alesia, the legion took part in the Bellovaci Campaign of 51BC, where Caesar marks it out along with the Eighth and Ninth Legions as having outstanding fighting ability. The legion went on to fight in the Civil War, being disbanded in 46BC. Reconstituted in 44BC by Augustus, the unit seems to have fought against Marcus Antonius. The Seventh Legion first won the title Claudia Pia Fidelis for being loyal to Claudius during Scribonianus’ rebellion in AD42, finally winning it for a sixth time in the third century AD Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’). The unit was still in existence in the fourth century AD on the middle Danube frontier. Its emblem was the Bull.

Legio VIII – Eighth Legion

This legion was raised around 59BC and fought in the Gallic War, where Caesar mentions it engaged in the fighting against the Nervii in 57BC and at Gergovia in 52BC. At Gergovia Caesar picks out the legion and cites the bravery of its centurions:

‘Lucius Fabius, a centurion of the Eighth Legion, who, it was ascertained, had said that day among his fellow soldiers that he was excited by the plunder won at Bourges, and would not allow any one to mount the wall before him, finding three men of his own company, and being raised up by them, scaled the wall. He himself, in turn, taking hold of them one by one, drew them up to the wall.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 47]

‘Marcus Petreius, a centurion of the same legion, after attempting to hew down the gates, was overpowered by numbers, and, despairing of his safety, having already received many wounds, said to the soldiers of his own company who followed him: “Since I cannot save you as well as myself, I shall at least provide for your safety, since I allured by the love of glory, led you into this danger, do you save yourselves when an opportunity is given.” At the same time he rushed into the midst of the enemy, and slaying two of them, drove back the rest a little from the gate. When his men attempted to aid him, in vain, he says, “you endeavour to procure my safety since blood and strength are now failing me, therefore leave this, while you have the opportunity, and retreat to the legion.” Thus he fell fighting a few moments after, and saved his men by his own death.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 50]

Given the legion was in Gaul, it is likely to have been one of those that fought at Alesia, particularly as it is mentioned in relation to the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC. In that campaign Caesar again marks it out for comment, along with the Seventh and Ninth Legions, as having outstanding fighting ability. After the Gallic Campaign the legion was given the title Gallica, following which the Eighth Legion crossed into Italy with Caesar and continued to fight with him in the Civil War. The legion fought at Ilerda in Spain, in 49BC, where the fighting techniques of the Spanish were disconcerting for Caesar’s troops:

‘Almost the whole army being daunted at this, because it had occurred contrary to their expectations and custom, Caesar encouraged his men and led the Ninth Legion to their relief, and checked the insolent and eager pursuit of the enemy, and obliged them, in their turn, to show their backs, and retreat to Ilerda, and take post under the walls. But the soldiers of the Ninth Legion, being overzealous to repair the dishonour which had been sustained, having rashly pursued the fleeing enemy, advanced into disadvantageous ground and went up to the foot of the mountain on which the town Ilerda was built …’

[Caesar, The Civil War, I. 45]

Soon after Ilerda, the legion was commanded by Marcus Antonius at the battles of Dyrrachium (Albania) and Pharsalus (Greece) in 48BC. At Pharsalus the Eighth Legion, still under strength from the fighting previously at Dyrrachium, was placed alongside the Ninth on the left wing, in an attempt to bolster them both. This formation proved successful and was repeated again in Africa against Scipio’s forces. Following its disbandment, after the Civil War, the legion was reconstituted in 44BC by Augustus, and fought with him against Marcus Antonius as the ‘Gallic Augustan’ legion. The legion went on to be attested along the Rhine–Danube frontier until the fourth century AD, and can possibly be identified as the ‘Octaviani. Legio Palatina’ (derived from the conjoining of Augustus’ original name Octavian and Palatina, denoting a senior unit) in the late fourth century AD manuscript the Notitia Dignitatum.

Caesar’s Legions at Alesia II

Legio IX (possibly titled ‘Hispana’) – Ninth Legion (‘Spanish’)

Probably raised by Caesar before 58BC, little is known of this legion, although given its cognomen it is likely to have been either constituted or stationed in Spain. It fought against the Nervii in 57BC and is likely to have also fought at Alesia. After Alesia the legion took part in the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC, where Caesar remarked on its outstanding fighting ability, along with the Seventh and Eighth Legions. The Ninth Hispana fought on Caesar’s side in the Civil War and was allied with the Eighth Legion on at least two occasions, in Africa and Greece. The Ninth is mentioned as coming under attack during the skirmishes around Dyrrachium (Albania) in 48BC. In response the Ninth replied bravely:

‘The soldiers of the Ninth Legion suddenly closing their files, threw their javelins, and advancing impetuously from the low ground up the steep, drove Pompey’s men precipitately before them, and obliged them to turn their backs; but their retreat was greatly impeded by the hurdles that lay in a long line before them, and the palisades which were in their way, and the trenches that were sunk. But our men being contented to retreat without injury, having killed several of the enemy, and lost but five of their own, very quietly retired, and having seized some other hills somewhat on this side of that place, completed their fortifications.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, III. 46]

Later, Pompey tried again to break through the fortifications that were surrounding his camp and again he met with solid resistance from the Ninth Legion, only this time a multi-pronged attack led to success for Pompey:

‘For when our cohorts of the Ninth Legion were on guard by the seaside, Pompey’s army arrived suddenly by break of day, and their approach was a surprise to our men, and at the same time, the soldiers that came by sea, cast their darts on the front rampart; and the ditches were filled with fascines: and the legionary soldiers terrified those that defended the inner rampart, by applying the scaling-ladders, and by engines and weapons of all sorts, and a vast multitude of archers poured round upon them from every side. Besides, the coverings of osiers, which they had laid over their helmets, were a great security to them against the blows of stones that were the only weapons that our soldiers had. And therefore, when our men were oppressed in every manner, and were scarcely able to make resistance, the defect in our works was observed, and Pompey’s soldiers, landing between the two ramparts, where the work was unfinished, attacked our men in the rear, and having beat them from both sides of the fortification, obliged them to flee.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, III. 63]

Later that year, at Pharsalus, the Eighth Legion – still under strength from the fighting at Dyrrachium – was placed alongside the Ninth on the left wing, in an attempt to bolster them both. This formation was repeated again in Africa against Scipio’s forces. The earlier valour of the Ninth Legion was not reflected by its behaviour at Placentia (Greece). Here its soldiers mutinied, saying they had served too long and demanding back pay. Caesar’s response was swift: he threatened decimation (the execution of one in ten men). This threat seems to have worked, with Caesar ultimately conceding that only the twelve instigators should be executed. After the Civil War the legion was disbanded, but later reconstituted by Augustus in 41BC. The legion went on to fight in Germany and in the invasion of Britain in AD43. Up until recently, this legion was last attested in the historical record in second century AD Britain, the account of its destruction inspiring a number of books, such as Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth. More recent evidence has shown its presence on the Danube frontier in the third century AD and so now it is thought that the legion may have been destroyed either there or during the Second Jewish War.

Legio X Equestris – Tenth Legion (‘Mounted’)

The Tenth Equestris was one of four legions Caesar inherited as governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and quickly rose to become one of Caesar’s favourites. This legion was possibly raised in 61BC. Caesar mentions it in the Gallic campaigns, in the battle against the Nervii, taking part in the invasion of Britain and fighting at the Siege of Gergovia. It is very likely that this legion was at also Alesia, as Caesar singles it out a number of times, and on one occasion mentions that he placed his faith in the Tenth Legion.

‘But that, if no one else should follow, yet he [Caesar] would go with only the Tenth Legion, of which he had no misgivings, and it should be his praetorian cohort. This legion Caesar had both greatly favoured, and in it, on account of its valour, placed the greatest confidence.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, II. 40]

The legion went on to win the title ‘Equestris’, due to an unusual event from Caesar’s conflict with Ariovistus, the so-called ‘King of the Germans’ in 58BC. Caesar had set out to stop Ariovistus’ control of the Aedui and Sequani, a Roman client kingdom. Caesar openly writes that he was concerned that Ariovistus’ intrusion into Gaul would end in the expansion of Germanic rule, and ultimately to the invasion of the Italian peninsula, as the Cimbri and Teutoni had previously done. Memories of Rome’s failure when tested by the Germans galvanized Caesar to act. After lengthy negotiations, Caesar managed to bring Ariovistus to a meeting. Ariovistus had stipulated that no infantry attend the meeting, as he did not wish to be ambushed. Knowing Caesar had mainly Gallic cavalry, Ariovistus had tried to put Caesar on the back foot with this demand.

‘Caesar, as he neither wished that the conference should, by an excuse thrown in the way, be set aside, nor durst trust his life to the cavalry of the Gauls, decided that it would be most expedient to take away from the Gallic cavalry all their horses, and thereon to mount the legionary soldiers of the Tenth Legion, in which he placed the greatest confidence; in order that he might have a bodyguard as trustworthy as possible, should there be any need for action. And when this was done, one of the soldiers of the Tenth Legion said, not without a touch of humour, that Caesar did more for them than he had promised; he had promised to have the Tenth Legion in place of his praetorian cohort; but he now converted them into knights …’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, II. 42]

The Tenth went on to fight with Caesar in the Civil War, taking the prestigious place on his right wing at Pharsalus in 48BC. The valour of one of its centurions prompted Caesar to comment:

‘There was in Caesar’s army, a volunteer of the name of Crastinus, who the year before had been first centurion of the Tenth Legion, a man of pre-eminent bravery. He, when the signal was given, says, “Follow me, my old comrades, and display such exertions in behalf of your general as you have determined to do: this is our last battle, and when it shall be won, he will recover his dignity, and we our liberty.” At the same time he looked back to Caesar, and said, “General, I will act in such a manner today, that you will feel grateful to me living or dead.” After uttering these words he charged first on the right wing, and about 120 chosen volunteers of the same century followed.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, III. 91]

Later that year the Tenth were in Africa and Caesar relates how they came into contact with one of Caesar’s old generals, Labienus.

‘Labienus, with his head uncovered, advanced on horseback to the front of the battle, sometimes encouraging his own men, sometimes addressing Caesar’s legions thus: “So ho! You raw soldiers there!” says he, “Why so fierce? Has he infatuated you too with his words? Truly he has brought you into a fine condition! I pity you sincerely.” Upon this, one of the soldiers said: “I am none of your raw warriors, Labienus, but a veteran of the Tenth Legion.” “Where’s your standard?” replied Labienus. “I’ll soon make you sensible who I am,” answered the soldier. Then pulling off his helmet, to discover himself, he threw a javelin, with all his strength at Labienus, which wounding his horse severely in the breast “Know, Labienus,” says he, “that this dart was thrown by a soldier of the Tenth Legion …”’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 16]

Two years later the Tenth Legion mutinied, asking for discharge and back pay. To the legionaries’ surprise, Caesar acknowledged their petition, granting them discharge and addressing them as ordinary citizens. After realizing they were now defenceless civilians the legionaries were soon asking to be taken back into service, fighting on Caesar’s right wing at Munda in 45BC. Finally disbanded after the Civil War in 45BC, the Tenth Legion was later reconstituted by Augustus as the X Gemina (‘Twin’). Well attested through the Roman Empire, the legion won the title Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’) in the third century AD and is finally mentioned as being stationed at Vindobona (Vienna) in the fourth century AD. The legion’s emblem was the bull – typical of Caesar’s legions.

Legio XI – Eleventh Legion

One of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Helvetii in 58BC, the Eleventh Legion also fought the Nervii in 57BC, at the Siege of Bourges in 52BC, after which it was likely to have followed Caesar to Alesia. In the Civil War the Eleventh was sent to Macedonia but no further information is forthcoming. Disbanded in 45BC, it was reconstituted by Augustus and is attested until the early fifth century AD. Reasonably well attested throughout the Roman Empire, the legion won the titles Claudia Pia Fidelis for being loyal to Claudius during Scribonianus’ rebellion in AD42, and went on to be awarded the title for the sixth time in the third century AD Pia VI Fidelis VI (‘Six Times Faithful, Six Times Loyal’). Vexillations (detachments of the legion) are attested around the Empire during the third century AD and the legion is last mentioned in the fifth century AD, guarding the lower Danube frontier at Durostorum (modern-day Silistra, Bulgaria). Its emblem seems to have been either the she-wolf and twins or the sea-god Neptune.

Legio XII Fulminata – Twelfth Legion (‘Wielders of the Thunderbolt’)

The second of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Helvetii in 58BC, the Twelfth Legion also fought against the Nervii in 57BC. In 56BC Caesar describes the Twelfth Legion as opening the route through the Alps under Servius Galba and encamping near Geneva. Suddenly the camp was overrun with a mixed army of Seduni and Veragri and for the under strength legion the onslaught was almost too much to bear:

‘When they had now been fighting for more than six hours, without cessation, and not only strength, but even weapons were failing our men, and the enemy were pressing on more rigorously, and had begun to demolish the rampart and to fill up the trench, while our men were becoming exhausted, and the matter was now brought to the last extremity, P. Sextius Baculus, a centurion of the first rank, whom we have related to have been disabled by severe wounds in the engagement with the Nervii, and also Q. Volusenus, a tribune of the soldiers, a man of great skill and valour, hasten to Galba, and assure him that the only hope of safety lay in making a sally, and trying the last resource. Whereupon, assembling the centurions, he quickly gives orders to the soldiers to discontinue the fight a short time, and only collect the weapons flung [at them], and recruit themselves after their fatigue, and afterwards, upon the signal being given, sally forth from the camp, and place in their valour all their hope of safety.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, III. 5]

‘They do what they were ordered; and, making a sudden sally from all the gates [of the camp], leave the enemy the means neither of knowing what was taking place, nor of collecting themselves. Fortune thus taking a turn, [our men] surround on every side, and slay those who had entertained the hope of gaining the camp, and having killed more than the third part of an army of more than 30,000 men (which number of the barbarians it appeared certain had come up to our camp), put to flight the rest when panic-stricken, and do not suffer them to halt even upon the higher grounds. All the forces of the enemy being thus routed, and stripped of their arms, our men betake themselves to their camp and fortifications.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, III. 6]

The Twelfth fought with Labienus against the Parisii in 52BC, where it was hard-pressed by the attacking Gauls.

‘on the left wing, which position the Twelfth Legion held, although the first ranks fell transfixed by the javelins of the Romans, yet the rest resisted most bravely; nor did any one of them show the slightest intention of flying. Camulogenus, the general of the enemy, was present and encouraged his troops.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VII. 62]

The Twelfth held on until further legions could turn the assault. The legion’s brave fighting at Paris meant it undoubtedly was with Caesar at Alesia. It is likely the Twelfth Legion was part of Labienus’ tough fight on the foot of Mont Réa. In the year following Alesia the Twelfth Legion was given to Marcus Antonius, who commanded it under Caesar at the Siege of Uxellodunum. The legion went on to fight with Caesar in the Civil War and later with Marcus Antonius in the East from the 40s BC. From then on the Twelfth Legion saw all of its service in the East, finally being recorded guarding the banks of the Euphrates in the fifth century AD. With its service mainly in the East of the Empire, some authors even suggest that Legio XII has been mentioned as far from Rome as Azerbaijan. Although its emblem was Caesar’s bull, it is thought that the thunderbolt was a more commonly used symbol.

Legio XIII Gemina – Thirteenth Legion (‘Twin’)

One of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Belgae in 57BC, hence its cognomen ‘Twin’. It is also mentioned in the battle against the Nervii and at Gergovia and so we could expect it to be at Alesia. The following year it was at winter quarters in the territory of the Bituriges, after which it was summoned to Caesar for the Bellovacan Campaign of 51BC, where it took part in the Siege of Uxellodunum. In 55BC the legion was to be found protecting the north of Italy, and later it had the honour of crossing the Rubicon with Caesar in 49BC. The legion fought alongside Caesar during the Civil War, in Egypt, Tunisia and at Munda in Spain, after which it was disbanded. Reconstituted by Augustus as the Legio XIII Gemina (‘Twin Legion’), it was celebrated on coins at least twice during the third century, finally being attested in the fifth century AD in Egypt. The emblem of the legion was the lion, symbol of Jupiter.

Legio XIIII – Fourteenth Legion

Possibly the second of the two legions recruited specifically to fight against the Belgae, there is no mention of the cognomen ‘Gemina’ at this date but if the Fourteenth was recruited along with the Thirteenth, then the ‘Twin’ nickname might be appropriate. Caesar refers to the legion in Gaul in 53BC, during his conflict with Ambiorix and the Sugambri.

‘Then, having divided his forces into three parts, he sent the baggage of all the legions to Aduatuca. That is the name of a fort. This is nearly in the middle of the Eburones, where Titurius and Aurunculeius had been quartered for the purpose of wintering. This place he selected as well on other accounts as because the fortifications of the previous year remained, in order that he might relieve the labour of the soldiers. He left the Fourteenth Legion as a guard for the baggage, one of those three which he had lately raised in Italy and brought over.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 32]

Given Caesar’s seeming lack of confidence in the fresh unit, its place at the Battle of Alesia may have been marginalized somewhat in favour of other veteran legions. There seems no doubt that the legion was at Alesia, as the Fourteenth is mentioned as being stationed with the Sixth, on the Saône, through the following winter. The legion fought in the Civil War with Caesar and was fighting at Thrapsus in 46BC. The Fourteenth fought with particular note in Spain, at Ilerda.

‘In the first encounter about seventy of our men fell: among them Quintus Fulgenius, first centurion of the second line of the Fourteenth Legion, who, for his extraordinary valour, had been promoted from the lower ranks to that post.’

[Caesar, The Civil War, I. 45]

Caesar once more recounted the bravery of the officers of the Fourteenth Legion, this time in the African Wars. A group of Caesar’s soldiers had been captured, and Scipio had them brought to him and asked them to join him against Caesar:

‘Scipio having ended his speech, and expecting a thankful return to so gracious an offer, permitted them to reply; one of their number, a centurion of the Fourteenth Legion, thus addressed him: “Scipio,” says he “for I cannot give you the appellation of general. I return you my hearty thanks for the good treatment you are willing to show to prisoners of war; and perhaps I might accept of your kindness were it not to be purchased at the expense of a horrible crime. What! Shall I carry arms, and fight against Caesar, my general, under whom I have served as centurion; and against his victorious army, to whose renown I have for more than thirty-six years endeavoured to contribute by my valour? It is what I will never do, and even advise you not to push the war any further. You know not what troops you have to deal with, nor the difference betwixt them and yours: of which, if you please, I will give you an indisputable instance. Do you pick out the best cohort you have in your army, and give me only ten of my comrades, who are now your prisoners, to engage them: you shall see by the success, what you are to expect from your soldiers.”’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 45]

‘When the centurion had courageously made this reply, Scipio, incensed at his boldness, and resenting the affront, made a sign to some of his officers to kill him on the spot, which was immediately put in execution.’

[Caesar, The African Wars, 45–6]

The legion went on to fight in Tunisia, and after the Civil War the Fourteenth Legion seems likely to have been reconstituted, together with another legion as the Legio XIIII Gemina (‘Twin’) in the 40s BC. The legion was given the titles Martia Victrix (Victorious in Battle) by Nero after its victory over Boudicca in AD61. The legion then passed on to be stationed along the Rhine–Danube frontier, where it is attested in the fourth century at Carnuntum (in lower Austria). The emblem of the later legion was the Capricorn, like many of Augustus’ legions, although it may be anticipated that the emblem of the legion at Alesia was Caesar’s bull.

Legio XV – Fifteenth Legion

Little is known about this legion. It is possible that the legion fought at Alesia with Caesar. It did not serve in the Siege of Uxellodunum, Caesar preferring to send it to protect the Roman colonies in northern Italy. Subsequently, in 55BC, when Caesar was ordered by the Senate to send a legion to the conflict in Parthia, it was the Fifteenth he chose. It is possible that he chose the weakest of his units, as the rest of his legions were left to protect Gaul, which he had high personal interest in retaining. The Fifteenth Legion went on to become embroiled in Caesar’s dispute with Pompey. On returning to Italy he discovered the Fifteenth still in Italy. The legion, along with the First (another of Caesar’s legions), had not been sent to Parthia, but had been handed to Pompey and kept in Italy. At this point Caesar’s fears over the political wrangling that had gone on in Rome while he campaigned in Gaul had come to fruition. At the Battle of Pharsalus in 48BC, Pompey used Caesar’s old legions, the Fifteenth (now numbered the Third) and First, against him. These should have been some of Pompey’s most experienced units in the battle, but they faced Caesar’s favourite, the Tenth Legion. Whether because they lacked fighting ability or had split loyalties, Pompey’s legions fought nowhere near as effectively as Caesar’s. The result was a rout and disaster for Pompey. Caesar permitted the legionaries to surrender but the auxiliaries were slaughtered. It is likely the unit was reconstituted after the Civil War by Augustus (in 40BC) as the Legio XV Apollinaris (‘Devoted to Apollo’), although there is no direct connection between the two units and the Augustan unit may simply have taken the number of a legion that had previously been disbanded. The Fifteenth Legion is attested throughout the Empire and seems to have finished in the east at Satala (Turkey).