Sunday, March 15, 2015

Branch and Anderson Led Brigades - Why Not Gatlin?

Brigadier General Richard C. Gatlin was commander of the Confederate North Carolina Department from August 19, 1861 to March 15, 1862. In 1862, he had two subordinate generals, Brigadier General Lawrence O'Bryan Branch in New Bern and Brigadier General Joseph R. Anderson in Wilmington. Due to a sudden recurrence of an old case of malaria, Gatlin was unable to assume the field command from his subordinate, Branch, when the Union's Burnside Expedition attacked New Bern on March 14, 1862. The Confederate forces retreated, New Bern fell, Branch was the losing general, and Gatlin was stripped of his command by the Confederate War Department, officially due to his illness.

A mystery I have been struggling with for years is why Gatlin never received another Confederate command. This seems very odd to me because among North Carolina-born Confederate officers, Gatlin, a 29-year veteran, was the third most experienced former officer of the US army, trailing only Generals Gabriel Rains and T. H. Holmes. Holmes was a division commander in Virginia and Raines led a brigade there. Holmes, in fact, replaced Gatlin on March 25, 1862 as commander of the North Carolina Department. Holmes' new organization consisted of four brigades, two of which were commanded by none other than Generals Joseph R. Anderson and Lawrence O'B. Branch, Gatlin's recent subordinates. Anderson and Branch were strictly civilian generals, neither had extensive military experience prior to the war, although Anderson was a West Point graduate. Further, less experienced officers such as Dorsey Pender and Matt Ransom became brigade commanders during Gatlin's hiatus.

After recovering from his illness, in April 1862, Gatlin petitioned the War Department for a brigade command, offering himself for field service, but a new command never came. April faded to May then June and on into the fall, yet Gatlin sat on the sidelines, living at his sister's home in Everettesville near Goldsboro. By October 1862, Gatlin began campaigning for the North Carolina Adjutant General's post. Confederate regulations forbade a brigadier general from holding his commission for longer than a specified period, I believe six months, without actively commanding a brigade. Still, Gatlin held onto his commission until January 1863 when, following personal meetings in Richmond with War Secretary James Seddon, he resigned his commission retroactively to September 8, 1862. So why, in an army that desperately needed experienced generals, did civilians Branch and Anderson actively command brigades while the old pro Gatlin sat on the sidelines? In the absence of evidence to the contrary, I can only speculate with three plausible explanations.

The first is that Gatlin, in his frustrating seven-month battle with the Confederate War Department for troops and ordnance that never materialized, must have kindled the ire of the War Department. On several occasions, he expressed his displeasure and disgust with the Confederacy's failure to adequately arm his North Carolina Department.

The second is that Gatlin was persona non grata in North Carolina following the loss of New Bern. The press had excoriated him (unfairly) and Gatlin was, at least in 1862, a political liability.

The third, and most plausible, is that Gatlin refused to serve outside of North Carolina. Any brigade commander would have been expected to lead his troops in Virginia or Tennessee or elsewhere, yet some reports indicate that Gatlin professed loyalty to only his home state and refused to serve outside its borders. I have not seen the Confederate War Department records, or Secretary Seddon's papers, which could reveal his discussions with Gatlin, so on my agenda is a trip to the National Archives this summer to examine those records for the answer, or at least a clue.

By the way, Branch was killed at Sharpsburg in September 1862. His command went on to become the much-heralded Branch-Lane brigade. Anderson was wounded at Frayser's Farm in June 1862 and resigned his commission to resume his management of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. Chances are good that Gatlin, had he gained a brigade command, might have been killed or wounded as well. Or perhaps he would have become one of Lee's trusted generals - we'll never know of course.

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