Kesselring’s Winter Position

The bitter and costly winter campaign to breach the line by which the Germans defended the approaches to Rome. Advance along the central mountain spine being impossible, the Eighth and Fifth Armies’ offensive efforts were confined to short stretches on either coast, on fronts at most twenty miles long. This – and the failure of the British and Americans to co-ordinate their offensives – greatly simplified Kesselring’s strategy, since it allowed him to leave his central sector almost undefended while concentrating his best divisions on the Mediterranean and Adriatic flanks. German troops in Italy, because they had been drawn from OKW’s central mobile reserve, were of high quality and would remain so throughout the Italian war. In October Kesselring deployed the 3rd and 15th Panzergrenadier Divisions against the Fifth Army, with the Hermann Goering in reserve, and the 16th and 26th Panzer, 29th Panzergrenadier and 1st Parachute, together with two infantry divisions, on the Adriatic flank. Against these nine divisions the Allies could deploy only nine of their own, of which one alone was armoured; and, although Clark and Montgomery had additional tank resources in independent units, they did not enjoy material superiority, nor could they count on their total command of the air to unseat the Germans from their fortified positions. Airpower has its limitations, which the topography of Italy made all too evident. The Allied air forces posed no threat to the defenders: established on and behind steep, rocky hillsides, they had no need to manoeuvre and required only the barest of essentials to sustain their resistance. Historians might have recalled that Italy had only twice in modern times been overrun in a rapid offensive, first by Charles VIII of France in 1494 and second by Napoleon after Marengo in 1800. In the first case the French had brought a revolutionary weapon, mobile cannon, to the campaign, and in the second they had been confronted by inept and divided opponents. Neither condition obtained in the winter of 1943. The Allies enjoyed at best material parity in a battle with a resolute and skilful enemy who had nothing to lose and much to gain by standing his ground. The effort to make him loosen his grip on the crags and outcrops of the Apennines was to involve the British and Americans in the bitterest and bloodiest of their struggles with the Wehrmacht on any front of the Second World War.

The bloodiness of the Italian fighting was felt all the harder by the Allied Mediterranean Force because, by a chance of assignment, so many of its divisions were drawn from narrowly localised recruiting areas. The US 36th and 45th Divisions were respectively Texas and Oklahoma formations of the National Guard, while the British 56th and 46th Divisions came from London and the North Midlands. The two Indian divisions, 4th and 8th, were raised from the ‘martial race’ minority of the Raj, while the 1st Canadian was formed of volunteers from a dominion which, after the tragedy of a failed raid on Dieppe in August 1942, harboured ill-concealed suspicions about the freedom with which British generals shed its soldiers’ blood. Three other groups of soldiers under Alexander’s command, the 2nd New Zealand Division and the French Moroccan and the Polish II Corps, were renowned for their hardihood; the Poles in particular demonstrated the fiercest determination to pay back the enemy for the sufferings inflicted on their country since 1939. However, in the prevailing circumstances, all three lacked any easy means to make good the losses they suffered at the front. Recognition of the human fragility of the instrument under their command afflicted all the Allied generals throughout the battle for Italy and deeply affected their conduct of it.

Some of the most harassing fighting was to follow immediately on the Salerno success, as the Allies drove forward to attack the Winter Position which Kesselring was busily fortifying between Gaeta and Pescara. Its western end, hinged on the great fortress abbey of Monte Cassino, where Benedict had established the roots of European monasticism in the sixth century, was known as the Gustav Line and was the strongest section of the whole position. Its approaches were strong also and were to cost the Allies heavily in the five offensives they launched between 12 October and 17 January to reach it. From 12 to 15 October the Fifth Army established bridgeheads across the Volturno, just north of Naples. Meanwhile on the Adriatic coast the Eighth Army crossed the river Trigno beyond Termoli, which had been captured on 6 October, and then breasted up to the line of the river Sangro. The Sangro battle (20 November to 2 December) proved particularly difficult. Winter rains turned the river to spate and forced both sides into inactivity during the first week. When Montgomery got his army across he was prevented from exploiting his success by the tenacious German defence of the coastal town of Ortona, where the 1st Canadian Division suffered heavy casualties in house-to-house fighting. Sangro was Montgomery’s last Mediterranean theatre battle before he left to assume command of the Overlord forces.

While the Sangro campaign was in progress, the Fifth Army had been inching forward, through a maze of broken country and enemy demolitions, to the river Garigliano, from which the valley of the Liri led past the Monte Cassino massif towards Rome. The approaches to the Liri were, however, dominated by the peaks of Monte Camino, Rotondo and Sammucro, each of which had to be scaled and conquered in a succession of bitter actions between 29 November and 21 December. Winter snowstorms then imposed a pause until 5 January, when the American and French divisions of the Fifth Army attacked again to reach the Rapido river, which flows into the Liri below the Cassino heights. As a final move in his drive to enter the Liri valley, Clark ordered the 36th (Texas) Division to make an assault crossing of the Rapido, on the seaward side between Cassino and its junction with the Liri, on 20 January 1944.

The American engineer commander responsible for clearing the mines with which the Germans had strewn the battlefield, and in charge of bridging the watercourse once the infantry had crossed in assault boats, warned beforehand that ‘an attack through a muddy valley that was without suitable approach routes and exit roads and that was blocked by organised defences behind an unfordable river [would] create an impossible situation and result in a great loss of life.’ His prediction was gruesomely borne out in practice. The Texans tried for three days to cross the river; some did, but all help failed to reach them, and most of them swam back to the near side. When the operation was abandoned, 1000 were dead, out of an infantry strength of less than 6000. The after-action report of the 15th Panzergrenadier Division which opposed them conveyed no sense of the disaster it had inflicted, merely stating that it had ‘prevented enemy troops crossing’. The repulse of the Texan attack ended all Mark Clark’s hopes for an early breakthrough to Rome up Highway 6, the main north-south route on the Mediterranean coast. He did not despair of capturing Rome quickly, however, for since 3 November a plan, sponsored by Eisenhower, had been afoot to unhinge the Winter Position by an amphibious landing in the Fifth Army’s rear at Anzio, close to Rome. The genesis of the plan was not entirely military; it partook of the politics of the Second Front, in particular the controversial plan to match Overlord in Normandy with another landing (Anvil, later Dragoon) in the south of France. General Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, personally regarded Anvil as a wasteful diversion. However, it was his duty to facilitate it, and he recognised that for its support it required the retention by the Central Mediterranean Force of a considerable portion of its landing fleet scheduled to leave Italy for England at the end of 1944, since Anvil could only be launched from northern Italy. Possession of a line running from Pisa to Rimini was regarded as essential for a successful launching of Anvil; to reach it by mid-1944 the Fifth Army would have to get north of Rome quickly; and to advance beyond Rome it would require landing craft to make a descent behind the Winter Position at once – hence Anzio and Operation Shingle.

The logistic calculation was flawless, the operational practice was lamentable. According to Bedell Smith’s plan, sixty Landing Ships Tank (the key amphibious vessel) were detained in the Mediterranean until 15 January, a terminal date later extended to 6 February. On 22 January the US VI Corps, which included a large complement of British troops as well as the American 1st Armoured and 3rd Divisions, commanded by General John P. Lucas, debarked at Anzio thirty miles south of Rome. The landing achieved complete surprise; neither the Abwehr nor Kesselring’s staff had detected any sign of its preparation. Had Lucas risked rushing at Rome the first day, his spearheads would probably have arrived, though they would have soon been crushed; nevertheless he might have ‘staked out claims well inland’, as Montgomery was to try to do in Normandy. In the event he did neither but confined himself to landing large numbers of men and vehicles and securing the perimeter of a tiny bridgehead. He thus achieved the worst of both worlds, exposing his force to risk without imposing any on the enemy. The Germans, rescued from crisis by his inactivity, hastily assembled ‘emergency units’ (Alarmeinheiten) from soldiers returning from leave, and these were rushed to Anzio while formed units were transferred from the north and quiet sectors of the Winter Position. When Lucas tried to move inland on 30 January he found the way barred; and on 15 February the newly formed Fourteenth Army counter-attacked him. This offensive, codenamed Fischgang, was undertaken in great strength on Hitler’s orders as a warning to the Allies that an Anglo-American landing could be thrown into the sea, and as a reassurance to the German people of the fate that awaited the invaders of northern Europe. Fischgang failed; but it left Lucas’s men besieged in squalor and danger. He was relieved on 23 February and his successor, General Lucius Truscott, was left to sustain the defence for the next three months.


The Hejaz railway



The Hejaz railway connecting Damascus with the Holy Cities of what is now western Saudi Arabia had been built by the Ottoman rulers, and financed by subscriptions from Muslims, in the early years of the twentieth century to ease the difficult journey across the desert for the huge numbers of pilgrims on the annual hajj. Although originally intended to reach as far as Makkah (Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed), opposition from local tribes – who made an excellent living transporting the pilgrims across the last section of desert – prevented the final leg from being built. Consequently, the line ran from Haifa, on a branch line on the Mediterranean coast, to Damascus, the capital of what is now Syria, and south through the desert to Madinah (Medina), nearly 1,000 miles away. The terminus was still 300 miles short of Makkah but nevertheless made it much easier for Muslims to reach their two holiest cities. The journey to Makkah took a couple of weeks using the railway rather than the arduous five- or six-week journey by caravan.

While the religious reasons for its construction were emphasized by the Ottoman ruler, Abdulhamid II, the railway, like so many others, also had both an imperial rationale, as it was a way of cementing together the disparate elements of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, and an economic one, since there was the hope that the desert would yield up valuable minerals. It was, therefore, vital for the Turks to protect and maintain the line after the outbreak of war, which they had joined on the German side in October 1914. In 1915, the British decided to open up a second front, in the Middle East, to take pressure off the Western Front, landing at the Dardanelles to force the Germans to divert resources there. It was a disastrous failure, with delays and uncertainty allowing the Turks to reinforce their positions over the beaches, resulting in the abandonment of the attack by the end of the year. Britain was left with two armies in the Middle East, in Palestine and Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq). In Palestine their main role was to guard the vital Suez Canal but in Mesopotamia the war against the Turks, which was primarily about protecting oil supplies from the Gulf, had initially resulted in a humiliating defeat for the British at Kut Al Amara in April 1916. The British had over-extended themselves by trying to occupy Baghdad, running too far ahead of their largely river-based supply lines, a problem which was eventually remedied through the construction of a large network of narrow-gauge railways. Kut was retaken from the Turks early the following year and Baghdad was seized in March 1917, finally giving the initiative to the British in the Mesopotamian campaign.

By the summer of 1916, the British saw that the best way of putting extra pressure on the Ottomans would be through encouraging the Arab tribes, led by Ali, Abdullah and Feisal, three sons of Sherif Hussein, the Emir of Makkah, to rise up against Turkish rule. With tacit encouragement from the British through diplomatic channels, the Arabs started harassing the Turks in June, targeting the Hejaz railway as the focus of their attacks. Initially their efforts were crude, involving ‘tearing off lengths of the metals with their bare hands and tossing them down the bank’. Since the Turkish army had efficient repair teams and large reserves of track, these attacks did little to hinder their war effort.

The Arabs needed explosives and better organization. Enter T. E. Lawrence. Captain – he later became a colonel – Lawrence arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in October with no official mandate but his timing proved perfect. An Arab-speaker who had travelled extensively in the Middle East, Lawrence had only managed to take time off his desk job in Cairo (Egypt was a British colony at the time ) by applying for leave. He never went back to the paperclips. Instead he was sent unofficially by the British military to meet Prince Feisal in the desert, because the Arabs’ attacks had petered out, and came back convinced that with supplies, especially guns and ammunition, and support the Arabs could make a significant difference to the war in the Middle East. An overt all-out attack on the Turks was ruled out by the British high command, but the idea of a war conducted cheaply and with little direct British involvement by offering support to the Arabs proved appealing. The British Army was so taken with the suggestion that it funded Lawrence to the tune of £200,000 per month, which he used to buy supplies and camels and to enlist the support of the Bedouin tribes.

Lawrence returned to Cairo and, having persuaded his superiors of the value of supporting the Arabs, rejoined Feisal’s irregular army as liaison officer in December 1916 to launch a series of attacks on the Hejaz Railway. In January 1917, the British seized Wejh, a port on the Red Sea, to use as their base for attacks further inland on the Arabian Peninsula. The takeover of Wejh was crucial not only in ensuring that the anti-Turkish forces could be supplied, but also in thwarting any Turkish notion of further attacks on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, and from this point their military ambitions were limited to retaining control of the Hejaz Railway in order to keep Madinah supplied.

The first attack on the railway was actually carried out not by Lawrence but by Herbert Garland, an eccentric major (bimbashi) attached to the Egyptian Army, and a party of fifty tribesmen, who blew up a troop train in February at Towaira. The gang had been fortunate as the guides had taken them close to a blockhouse protecting the line but hey had not been overheard as they laid their charges. Indeed, the railway was well protected by a series of blockhouses at key structures such as bridges and tunnels, and therefore the attacks were focussed on remote areas of the line. Simply blowing up the track was futile as the repair work could be effected quickly, especially as there were plenty of spare rails in Madinah that had originally been intended for the extension of the line to Makkah which was never built. As he explains in his classic Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence instead devised tactics that were designed to cause maximum disruption to the Turks while avoiding an all-out confrontation and he deliberately targeted trains with specially devised mines that he normally laid himself.

By the time Lawrence arrived, the Arabs had already taken over several towns in the Hejaz, including Makkah, but the Turks still held Madinah at the end of the line which could only be supplied by the railway. Lawrence ruled out the idea of trying to take the town because the Arab irregular forces were no match for the well-organized Turks in set-piece battles. Instead, the tactic was to launch a series of raids along the length of the railway, similar guerrilla methods to those employed by the Boers against the British in South Africa: ‘Our idea was to keep his railway just working, but only just, with the maximum of loss and discomfort… The surest way to limit the line without killing it was by attacking trains.’20 Lawrence led his first raid on the railway at Abu Na’am in March and there were some thirty more attacks in the following months, most carried out by Arab forces led by Prince Abdullah and supported by forces of the Egyptian Army and a small French contingent. They were supplemented by a few bombing raids by aeroplanes on the railway, which was at the limit of their range from their base in Egypt. Lawrence’s attacks took a disproportionate toll on the Turkish forces. Very few of the attackers were killed in these engagements, while the Turks usually lost dozens, if not more, each time. The attacks kept the Turks on the defensive and prevented Fakhri Pasha, the commander of the Turkish garrison at Madinah, from launching an attack to try to regain Makkah. This was vital since the fact that the Turks had lost control of the holiest of cities, after 600 years of Ottoman rule, was a great spur to the continuation of the Arab Revolt. While the railway was rarely closed for more than a day or so by the attacks, the number of trains was reduced from the peacetime level of two daily to two every week, which created food and fuel shortages in Madinah, stimulating internal dissent. About half the population fled northwards on the railway – one train of such refugees, mainly women and children, would have been blown up by Lawrence but for the good fortune that his mine did not go off.

Meanwhile Lawrence turned his attention to the Port of Aqaba. His little army left Wejh in July 1917 and cleverly attacked the railway on several occasions as he headed north to fool the Turks into thinking that was the purpose of his mission. The Turks expected that any attack on Aqaba would come from the sea. Instead, Lawrence and Feisal, with a force of 2,000 men, mostly on camels, for once took on a static army head on but triumphed easily thanks to the element of surprise and the lack of proper defences in what was then a small fishing village. The Turks put up little resistance and the bloody side of this desert war was exposed by the subsequent massacre of more than 300 Turkish soldiers by the vengeful Arabs, the kind of incident which, as Lawrence relates in his book, was repeated several times during this campaign. There were virtually no casualties on the Arab side, though Lawrence nearly killed himself by accidentally shooting his own camel in the head and being thrown off at full speed, but suffered only cuts and bruises.

Now the focus of the revolt turned north, with the idea of chasing the Turks out of what is now Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The capture of Aqaba helped protect the British right flank in Palestine, where a different type of war was taking place, one which involved building a railway rather than destroying it. Having initially only sought to defend the Suez Canal, the British, led by Lawrence’s hero, General Edmund Allenby, decided to go on the offensive across the Sinai towards Palestine but they needed a railway to supply them, just as Kitchener’s army had when reconquering Sudan. The aim was to push through from Egypt to Palestine, and chase the Turks out of Gaza, and then Jerusalem, with the ultimate goal of Damascus. The railway was started at Kantara, on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal, and was gradually extended eastwards during 1916 and the early part of 1917. It made slow but steady progress, reaching the front at Gaza, 125 mile s from its terminus, where the Turks were entrenched, supplied by their own railhead at Beersheba and later a specially built branch just out of range of the British guns. It would take Allenby three attempts to dislodge the Turks from Gaza, but when he finally did, and marched on to capture Jerusalem at the end of 1917, it was celebrated as one of the few genuine victories by British forces in the war.

Lawrence had used Aqaba as a base for repeated attacks on the Hejaz railway until the winter, when there was a lull in the fighting. Allenby’s progress towards Damascus was delayed, too, as two of his divisions (around 25,000 men) were redeployed to the Western Front. In the spring, when the drive to Damascus finally began, the policy towards the railway changed. It was imperative to cut off the line up from the Hejaz so that the Turks could not use it to bring reinforcements from Madinah against Allenby’s forces. Consequently, Lawrence’s group attacked the railway in various places, having developed a more sophisticated type of mine inappropriately called ‘tulip’. This was a much smaller charge, a mere 2lb of dynamite compared with the 40lb or 50lb ones used previously, and involved placing the charge underneath the sleepers, which would blow the metal upwards ‘into a tulip-like shape without breaking; by doing so it distorted the two rails to which its ends were attached’, which was impossible to repair and consequently forced the Turks to replace the whole section of track. In early April 1918, the last train between Madinah and Damascus made it through but after that the line was blocked by successive attacks which left more Turkish troops stuck in the Hejaz protecting a line that was now of no strategic use than were facing Allenby in Palestine. In the decisive attack at Tel Shahm, led by General Dawnay, Lawrence showed his regard for the railway by claiming the station bell, a fine piece of Damascus brass work: ‘the next man took the ticket punch and the third the office stamp, while the bewildered Turks stared at us, with a growing indignation that their importance should be merely secondary’. The Turks had clearly never met any British trainspotters with their obsession for railway memorabilia.

Attacks against the northern part of the railway continued, and the line was cut off in several other places, either by Lawrence or the British forces coming from Palestine. The attacks on the Hejaz railway had been an exemplary case history of guerrilla warfare. It was not all about Lawrence, as he readily admits in the Seven Pillars, but without his ability to stimulate the Arab revolt, General Allenby’s task in sweeping through Palestine would undoubtedly have been harder. Although in the later stages some armoured vehicles and even air support became available, the basic tactics remained the same throughout: ‘The campaign remained dependent on the speed and mobility of the irregular Bedouin forces, and on the inability of the better trained, well-equipped Turkish troops to follow the raiding parties into the desert… As Glubb Pasha (of later Trans-Jordanian Arab League fame) remarked: “the whole Arab campaign provides a remarkable illustration of the extraordinary results which can be achieved by mobile guerrilla tactics. For the Arabs detained tens of thousands of regular Turkish troops with a force scarcely capable of engaging a brigade of infantry in pitched battle”.’

The Turks, too, were equally courageous and in their stubborn defence of the line there is another side to the more famous Lawrence story, which is the difficulty of putting a railway permanently out of action. There was no shortage of difficulties for railway operations. Fuel was a constant worry and by the end of the war the houses in Madinah had been stripped of all timber and even the city gates and wooden sleepers from the track had been removed to keep the locomotives running, which required constant improvisation in the face of the constant attacks. While even today a few wrecked locomotives can still be seen in the desert, for the most part the Turks rescued damaged engines and repaired them in their works yards. The historian of the lines, James Nicholson, remarks that the foot soldiers were genuinely heroic: ‘Confined to their stations and a narrow strip of land, they were cast adrift in a vast and hostile country, far from the main centres of command.’ They were dependent on the railway for all their needs and therefore by 1918 ‘many were close to starvation, clothed in rags and ravaged by scurvy’. And yet, despite that, they managed to keep the railway operating until nearly the end of the war.


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

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.”


Roman Emperors: Gordian III to Valerian Part I

Shapur I as he may have appeared during his campaigns against the Roman armies in the 3rd century AD.

The bloodletting of summer 238 ended, in Italy at least, in a relatively stable peace. The 12-year-old emperor Gordian III, acclaimed caesar in February, and then augustus in May or June, was watched over by a cabal of mainly equestrian officials who determined imperial policy. These men were led by C. Furius Sabinius Timesitheus, the praetorian prefect, whose power was such that he married his daughter Tranquillina to the emperor himself in May 241, as soon as she was old enough. But whatever stability had accompanied the end of the civil war proved illusory. The proconsul of Africa, M. Asinius Sabinianus, who had replaced old Gordian, revolted soon after the new regime had settled. He was an old Severan, having been consul in 225, and it may be that he objected to the sidelining of the consular elites after the failure of Pupienus and Balbinus’s regime. Sabinianus’s putsch failed, put down by the procurator of Mauretania, Faltonius Restitutianus. He was replaced as proconsul by L. Caesonius Lucillus Macer Rufinianus, who had been one of the vigintiviri alongside Balbinus and Pupienus, which suggests that we must not read events in terms of senatorial and equestrian factions at court, but instead as rival factions within equestrian and senatorial ordines.

Nevertheless, with Timesitheus at the centre of things, the government continued to have the professional, systematising outlook of the bureaucratic classes – among the equestrians known to have prospered greatly during the reign we find M. Gnaius Licinius Rufinus, as a libellis; C. Attius Alcimus Felicianus, whose career had begun under Elagabalus and whose financial posts clearly made him something of an expert in the field; Gnaeus Domitius Philippus, who was prefect of the vigiles at the start of the reign; Faltonius Restitutianus, who put down the revolt of Sabinianus in Africa; and two brothers from Arabia, Julius Priscus and Julius Philippus, the latter becoming emperor within a few years: by the early 240s, the world in which the accession of Macrinus had been resisted because he was not a senator no longer existed.

In 238, the regime’s first order of business was Persia. The Sasanian kings who replaced the Arsacids in Persia and Mesopotamia were much more expansionary than their predecessors had been, bringing to heel the semi-independent satraps of Mesopotamia and the Caucasus, in part provoked by the survival of the Arsacids in Armenia, where kings like Tiridates II (r. 217–52) attempted to rally other frontier dynasts as far away as India against Ardashir. By the time the regime of the young Gordian had settled, much of Roman Mesopotamia was exposed to Persian invasion, Nisibis, Carrhae and Hatra had all fallen, and other fortress cities like Singara could not be re-enforced. The prestige of the new regime at Rome would be much enhanced if it could secure the eastern frontiers in a way that Maximinus had failed entirely to do.

Leaving behind Alcimus Felicianus to run Rome, and having appointed Julius Priscus as his fellow praetorian prefect, Timesitheus and the young emperor marched east in 242, evidently having found it difficult to muster a campaign army. They signalled the gravity of their intentions by opening the doors of the temple of Janus in Rome itself, probably the last time in history that this archaic ritual declaration of war was performed. They then progressed overland through Moesia and Thrace, their crossing from Europe to Asia, probably early in the summer of 242, being commemorated with an issue of gold medallions with the legend traiectus, ‘crossed over’, to important courtiers. Antioch in Syria served, as it usually did, as the staging point for the campaign against Persia, but delays were endemic. The year 243 was spent in Syria, but not until the winter of 243–4 do we find the army fighting along the Euphrates. It may be that the death of Timesitheus sometime in 243 had contributed to the delay. His successor as prefect was Julius Philippus, brother of the other prefect Julius Priscus. The joint prefecture of two brothers was unheard of, but in the circumstances, the two men had become indispensable: they came from Shaba in Arabia, had risen through the equestrian grades (Priscus, at least, had once been a fiscal procurator), and their local connections made them a good conduit to the region’s elites whose cooperation was necessary if the campaign was to go smoothly and the army was to be properly supplied.

Egypt and Cyrene

At first, the fighting went the Romans’ way and a victory over Persian forces is recorded in the sources, perhaps at Resaina in Osrhoene, and possibly in battle against the Persian shah himself. This was now Shapur I, ruling alone after the death of Ardashir in 242, though he had been effectively in charge since 240, when he was crowned co-ruler with his father. Shapur, even more than Ardashir, was the true architect of Sasanian power. Though he had not yet articulated an ambition to recreate the Persian empire of the Achaemenids, there is no question that he embraced an Achaemenid more than a Parthian model of display. What is more, he took to new levels his father’s militance, campaigning on every frontier of his empire and imposing Sasanian governors, often members of his own house.

Much of what we know about Shapur’s early reign comes from the monumental inscription he put up to commemorate his victories at Naqsh-e Rustam. The site is significant, for it lies a few miles outside the ancient Achaemenid city of Persepolis and houses the rock-cut tombs of several Achaemenid kings, including Darius the Great and probably Xerxes I. By appropriating for his own display the necropolis of the last conquering dynasty to come from Fars, Shapur was perhaps implying a continuity with them, and certainly displaying himself firmly in a Persian rather than a Mesopotamian or Parthian light.

Of the two earliest Sasanian reliefs at Naqsh-e Rustam, one shows Shapur on horseback, with a Roman emperor kneeling in supplication before him. The other shows Shapur’s father Ardashir being invested with his crown by the supreme Zoroastrian divinity Ohrmazd. A more elaborate version of the Shapur monument appears at Bishapur, a town that served as a staging post between the Sasanian dynastic centre at Istakhr and the old Parthian capital at Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia. Back at Naqsh-e Rustam, a square tower known as the Ka’ba-i Zardusht (or the Kaaba of Zoroaster) stood opposite the rock-cut tombs of the Achaemenids, and had served as a Zoroastrian fire sanctuary since the reign of the Achaemenid Darius. On it, Shapur’s son Ohrmazd I had inscribed a text in three languages – Parthian, Middle Persian and Greek – that his father had composed in the last years of his long reign, outlining an official version of his glorious deeds and his piety. The inscription gives Shapur’s title as His Mazdayasnian Majesty Shapur, King of Kings of Iran and not-Iran (or of the Aryans and the non-Aryans) Whose Seed is from the Gods. Shapur’s father Ardashir had already revived the Achaemenid title of shahanshah (‘king of kings’) and asserted a personal connection to Ohrmazd, but Shapur now added an explicit claim to universal rulership that matched that of the Roman emperors. The rest of the text gives us the Persian account of Shapur’s struggles with his neighbours and is often strikingly different from what we find in the Greek and Latin sources, sometimes completely contradicting them. It also, to some extent, confirms the strong focus of Shapur on his conflicts with the Romans, rather than with other parts of his realm, for the battles that he commemorates on his inscription are all those that he fought against the Romans, rather than on his eastern and north-eastern frontiers.

And yet we also know that Shapur inherited the same problems his Arsacid predecessors had faced on the eastern frontier. Early in his reign, he may have subjugated Khwarezm, the northernmost of the Central Asian oases, at the delta of the Amu Darya beside what was then still the Aral sea, though it never became a province of the empire. It was also Shapur, though when in his reign we do not know, who reduced the Kushanshahr to a client state of his dynasty, marked by a series of coinages that we know as Kushano-Sasanian. Here, as elsewhere, we continue to learn a great deal that is new in Sasanian history from the numismatic evidence – much of it, sadly, coming to light from the clandestine excavation and looting made possible by conflict in present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most significantly, the heavy concentration of Sasanian minting in places like Merv and elsewhere in the east, some of it by die-workers clearly trained in the metropolitan mint at Ctesiphon, demonstrates how much military force was needed to control the east under Shapur and how many campaigns he must have fought there.

In his inscription, he lays claim to Sind and ‘the Kushanshahr up to Peshawar and up to Kashgar, Sogdiana and the mountains of Tashkent’, but he does not tell us about the fighting that was clearly necessary to control that region. Instead, he focuses on his Roman victories – reciprocating the kind of focus that Roman emperors had for their eastern neighbours. This Sasanian focus on Rome marks a change from the Arsacids’ more balanced division of attention between their eastern and western frontiers, although Shapur did continue the Arsacid policy of farming out control of the Syrian and northern Arabian deserts to clients, most particularly the Lakhmid king of Hira, Imru’ulqais, who had succeeded his father some years before and went on to serve not just Shapur but also his successors Ohrmazd I and Varahran I as satrap of Iraq and the Hijaz.

For historians of the Roman empire, this Sasanian interest in Rome offers a valuable counterpoint to the sparse imperial evidence. On the Naqsh-e Rustam monument, Shapur claims to have defeated and killed the emperor Gordian at Misiche (or, in Persian, Mishik) on the middle Euphrates. Of the three Roman emperors depicted on the victory monument, one lies dead on the ground, one is supplicant and the third has been taken captive – Gordian, Philip and Valerian, respectively. Shapur also renamed Misiche Peroz-Shapur, or ‘victorious is Shapur’. By contrast with Shapur’s explicit claims, the Roman sources are ambiguous. None straightforwardly attests Gordian’s death in battle. Indeed, the best Roman evidence suggests that Gordian died further north than Misiche, at Zaitha, sometime between mid January and mid March 244. He was certainly buried there, at least temporarily, in a massive tumulus that could still be seen more than a hundred years later, when another Roman army was invading the region.

What actually happened will never be known, but Gordian was a teenager and had little military experience. Few can have expected great things of him on the battlefield. It may be that a mid-winter defeat by Shapur on the edge of Persian territory, one in which the emperor himself was perhaps badly wounded, prompted a disgruntled soldiery to assassinate him at Zaitha. An opaque passage in the life of the philosopher Plotinus, who had been accompanying the imperial expedition on a sort of research trip for esoteric knowledge, suggests that there was rioting in the Roman camp when Gordian was killed. As one would expect, many sources – from the near-contemporary apocalyptic text known as the Thirteenth Sybilline Oracle to the fourth-century Latin tradition of abbreviated histories – blame the man who profited from Gordian’s death for causing it, Julius Philippus, the praetorian prefect who had succeeded Timesitheus. But Philippus (or Philip the Arab, as he is conventionally known) was not with the army at the time of Gordian’s death, though his brother Priscus may have been. That fact could explain why the older and presumably predominant brother did not himself take the throne – throughout late Roman history, councils of army officers sometimes chose an imperial candidate who could achieve consensus precisely because he was not present on the spot to take part in debate about the succession.

Regardless of how Gordian died, it took a lot of negotiation for the army to extricate itself from disputed territory, and the new emperor had to act personally as a supplicant in the peace talks. The settlement, which was all Philip could have hoped for in the circumstances, was the root of endless further conflict between Persian and Roman monarchs. According to the Roman sources, Philip ‘betrayed’ Armenia to the Persians, which must mean that he acknowledged Shapur’s right to determine that kingdom’s succession, as the Arsacids had done for centuries. Shapur, in his victory inscription from Naqsh-e Rustam, claims both that Philip became his tributary and that he was made to pay an indemnity of half a million gold aurei, a seemingly impossible sum, but at the very least an approximation of the scale: to get his army out of Persia safely, Philip mortgaged his throne. In all likelihood, along with acknowledging Sasanian hegemony in Armenian affairs, he also transferred the traditional supplementary payments for guarding the Caucasian passes against nomadic incursions from the Armenians to the Persians themselves, hence the shahanshah’s willingness to claim that Philip was offering him tribute – and hence, too, the reason the Roman sources are silent on such details.

Philip, for his part, put as happy a face on things as he plausibly could. Back in Antioch, he struck antoniniani with the legend pax fundata cum Persis (‘peace made with Persia’), took for himself the titles Parthicus and Persicus Maximus, and began to establish the dynastic image of his family. His wife, Marcia Otacilia Severa, was made augusta and named mater castrorum, a direct assertion of the regime’s concern for its soldiers. Then, on two key frontiers, Philip installed relatives as his representatives: his brother Julius Priscus in Syria and their brother-in-law Severianus (Otacilia Severa’s brother) on the Danube in Moesia. He himself returned to Rome as quickly as possible, taking the sea route up the coast of Asia Minor, reaching the imperial capital early in the summer of 244. Severianus’s command shows the growing importance, in these years, of the Danubian armies by contrast to those of the Rhine frontier; it may also be an early sign of the increasingly assertive Roman self-consciousness in a region that was one of the last Latin-speaking parts of the empire to gain widespread access to the Roman citizenship – certainly men from the Danube would come to dominate politics in the latter half of the century.

The Syrian command of Julius Priscus, meanwhile, demonstrates Philip’s determination to keep an eye on Persian developments and to maintain the family’s close connections to their native east. The reconstruction of the dynastic home town of Shahba under the new name of Philippopolis was a truly massive endeavour, one financed in part by stricter financial exactions under the supervision of Priscus. Priscus’s role is also significant: he was not merely the governor of Syria but also corrector, a nebulous word that signalled his precedence over other officials. He possessed, in other words, supra-regional jurisdiction over the other governors of the east, an important precedent for later third-century experiments in government. Priscus was, to all practical purposes, Philip’s co-ruler in the east. Severianus probably disposed of a similar authority in the Balkans, though his title is not explicitly attested in the way that Priscus’s is.

At the same time that Philip was securing his familial power in this way, he was also ensuring that he had no challenges to his own legitimacy – he had not forgotten how popular the young Gordian had been with the people of Rome, and so he put about word that Gordian had died of an illness and brought his body back to Rome, burying it with honours. He also asked the senate to approve the dead boy’s consecration as Divus Gordianus, which it did, and though Tranquillina disappears from the historical record, she is likely to have enjoyed an honourable retirement, since she and Gordian had lacked any worrisome heirs. Philip’s own son, born around 237/238 and thus five years old, was now made caesar. Because of the poor documentation for this period, we do not know how long this relative tranquillity lasted, or how popular Philip was in Rome itself. But trouble at the frontiers occupied the middle of his reign.

Just as the earlier 200s had seen upheavals among the barbarian polities of the upper Rhine and Danube, so the middle years of the century brought major cultural and political change beyond the lower Danube and the northern Black Sea coast. Scholars have traditionally associated these changes with the arrival in the region of Goths migrating from their former homes in what is now Poland. This narrative is shaped around what we find in the Getica of Jordanes, a tale of ethnic origins composed hundreds of years later, in sixth-century Constantinople, by a Latin-speaking Roman of Gothic descent. Archaeological evidence has been consistently distorted to fit a legendary saga of mass migration and Scandinavian origins. But this simplistic model is not well supported by the evidence.