Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
5 Dec. 2016
Review by John G. Selby, Roanoke College
A Young General and the Fall of Richmond: The Life and Career of Godfrey Weitzel
By G. William Quatman
Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2015. Pp. xvii, 336. ISBN 978–0–8214–2142–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2016, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

Godfrey Weitzel's history may not be "one of the great untold stories of the Civil War," (xiv) but he surely ranks among the least known Union corps commanders. A West Point graduate with a flair for engineering, Weitzel served stalwartly under generals Benjamin Butler and Nathaniel Banks in the West, then under Butler again and Gen. Edward C. Ord in the East. He commanded the first all-black corps, the Twenty-Fifth, and had the plum assignment of capturing and occupying Richmond in April 1865. After the war, he returned to the Corps of Engineers, where he remained until his death in 1884.

Attorney, architect, and amateur historian G. William Quatman has written the first full-length biography of Weitzel, a man he might be distantly related to. He refers to Weitzel in his prologue as a "hero" (xvii) and in his the postscript as "one of the key players in the Civil War" (295). While those characterizations are debatable, no one can doubt Quatman's passion for his subject. Writing more for Civil War enthusiasts than scholars, he uses a lively writing style throughout, constantly trying to put the reader at the scene. For example, describing Weitzel in his first test as general and brigade commander at the Battle of Georgia Landing (27 Oct. 1862), he writes, "General Weitzel sat upright on his horse, cigar clenched in his teeth, watching the enemy fire and evaluating the situation. Peering through the woods, he thought he saw a glimpse of movement across the field. 'Rise up!' he suddenly said. 'Their cavalry are coming!'" (105). Quatman uses subheadings on nearly every other page, often with catchy titles like "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (229) and "After Midnight: Burning Bridges" (230).

This choice of style and tenor may reflect the nature of Quatman's source material. Besides the Official Records, he draws on Cyrus Comstock's published diary, Benjamin Butler's published autobiography, and Weitzel's own letter book, which is not described. Given the apparent lack of any large cache of Weitzel's papers to draw on, Quatman must rely on the accounts of his contemporaries for personal insights into his subject, as well as gripping battle descriptions. He has also consulted much of the secondary literature, though some important scholarly works have been overlooked.

Quatman's main argument, besides the heroic nature of a little appreciated general, runs along two tracks. The first casts Weitzel as, "like Forrest Gump…, always in the right place at the right time" (xiv). The second maintains that, sometimes thanks to fortuitous timing, he had "success" in all his assignments, vindicating the faith his superiors placed in him (xv). Quatman makes his case through a chronological narrative of Weitzel's life. A wunderkind who lied to enter West Point at age fifteen and graduated second in the Class of 1855, Weitzel was assigned to the prestigious Corps of Engineers, where he served ably under Maj. Pierre G.T. Beauregard, strengthening the defenses of forts Jackson and St. Phillip. His intimate knowledge of these forts made him invaluable to the Union high command in 1862. He was considered such a bright student that he was assigned to be an instructor of military and civil engineering at his alma mater in 1859, a mere four years after his graduation.

When the war began, Weitzel was sent to strengthen Fort Pickens, where he again came to the attention of authorities in Washington. Thanks to his familiarity with the two forts on the Mississippi, he was appointed Chief Engineer under Butler, David Porter, and David Farragut as they planned and conducted their mission to capture New Orleans in 1862. He even served briefly as Mayor of New Orleans.

Butler saw that his young protégé was promoted to brigadier general in 1862, giving the twenty-six-year-old command of a brigade that pursued Confederate armies in Louisiana. When Butler was removed in December 1862, Weitzel fought under Banks at the Battle of Port Hudson. Promoted to division commander, he participated in the failed attempt to take Sabine Pass in September 1863.

Weitzel might have languished in the Western Theater until the end of the war, had his patron, Butler, not requested his transfer to the Army of the James in winter 1863–64. He fought at the battles of Drewry's Bluff, Fort Harrison, and Fair Oaks. Then, in December 1864, he was picked to command the new all-black Twenty-Fifth Corps, a post other white officers had rejected (as Weitzel would have two years earlier). Butler repaid Weitzel's loyalty by shouldering the blame for the failed Fort Fisher attack (Dec. 1864), allowing Weitzel to retain command of his Corps, which he led into an undefended Richmond on 3 April 1865—the crowning achievement of his Civil War career.

Weitzel then went through a brief (and controversial) period as military commander of Richmond before being sent to guard the Texas border. When the Twenty-Fifth was disbanded in January 1866, Weitzel reverted to his old rank of captain in the engineers. Twice promoted in the next eighteen years, he faithfully served in engineering posts, including the lighthouse district for the Great Lakes.

While this summary of Weitzel's career certainly bears out Quatman's arguments, it suffers from notable omissions. For example, Weitzel was hurt by his ties to Benjamin Butler. The professional generals never trusted Butler, and all his subordinates had to rise above their association with him. To Weitzel's credit, he did just that, though his close friendship with Cyrus Comstock, one of Grant's favorites, had much to do with his promotion and retention as a corps commander. Like many professional soldiers, he had little interest in or aptitude for politics, as became evident in the hothouse atmosphere of postwar Richmond. His service in the West under two political generals cost him any chance for a Western plains posting after the war and hastened his exit from the public's eye. And, too, his skills as a commander were never tested in a major battle against a formidable Confederate general. In terms of nineteenth-century American military history, he belongs in a study of leading West Point-trained engineers before, during, and after the Civil War. The Corps of Engineers skimmed the cream of the Military Academy, but did not produce the most notable "fighting" generals of the war.

The content and style of this engaging study of a minor Civil War general recalls some biographies written by amateur historians in the 1960s.[1] Now that G. William Quatman has provided a welcome, basic, rather laudatory history of Godfrey Wetzel's career, it is time for another historian to more fully incorporate his story into a broader work on General Butler, black troops, and engineers-turned-general-officers in the Civil War.

[1] E.g., Freeman Cleaves, Meade of Gettysburg (Norman: U Okla Pr, 1960), or Glenn Tucker, Hancock the Superb (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960).

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