First Wednesdays – “I have the honor to report…”

After the conclusion of the Seven Days Campaign on July 1, 1862, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s newly named Army of Northern Virginia settled into an uneasy rest, while keeping one eye on Major General George B. McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac stationed around Harrison’s Landing down river from Richmond, Va. During this time, battered regiments worked to recover from the grueling seven day campaign to take the offensive against the Union forces outside of Richmond, Va. The lull in combat gave officers a chance to account for their unit’s losses, make requests to replace missing equipment, and to appraise their units’ actions through the drafting of after-action reports concerning their units’ previous engagements.

These after-action reports, which are now known as after-action reviews in the modern United States Army, are one of the best primary source documents in detailing the actions of a particular military unit in a battle. Many of these reports, coupled with official correspondence, was the foundation of the landmark publication known as The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies that was published at the end of the Nineteenth Century. As one can imagine, many of these reports have to be taken with a grain of salt. In some cases, officers drafted their reports to promote themselves to their superior officers, to impress the voting population at home, or cover up mistakes made on the battlefield. In some cases, the commanding officer was killed in combat, and his subordinates were left to gather the documentary evidence of the regiment’s actions in the previous battles. Active military campaigns delayed the writing of these reports, until well after the battle was fought. General Lee did not submit his detailed official report of the Gettysburg Campaign until January 1864.

Our First Wednesday post is highlighting the production of after-action reports in Brigadier General Lawrence O’Bryan Branch’s North Carolina brigade during the second week of July 1862. These original reports were found in the Lawrence O’Bryan Branch Papers here at the State Archives of North Carolina. Prior to the production of his own brigade’s after-action report, General Branch received the reports from the regiments in his command, which were the Seventh North Carolina State Troops (NCST), Eighteenth North Carolina Troops (NCT), Twenty-Eighth NCT, Thirty-Third NCT, and Thirty-Seventh NCT. In the case of the Seventh NCST, the second in command of the regiment, Edward Graham Haywood, had to draft the after-action report due to the death of the unit’s commanding officer, Colonel Reuben Campbell. Haywood also took the opportunity to single out two officers who left their companies without leave. Two of the officers writing reports, James Lane and Robert Hoke, who would become generals in their own right later in the war. General Branch’s report, as well as those of his regimental commanders, can be also found in The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, series 1, 11, pt:2:881-897.

Seventh North Carolina State Troops

Eighteenth North Carolina Troops

Twenty-Eighth North Carolina Troops

Thirty-Third North Carolina Troops

Thirty-Seventh North Carolina Troops

The rest for General Branch and his men was short-lived. Another Union army, Army of Virginia under the command of Major General John Pope, was moving south toward Culpeper, Va. to threaten the Confederate rail lines linking Richmond and the Shenandoah Valley. To counter that movement, General Lee dispatched Major General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson and two infantry divisions to monitor General Pope’s army on July 13, 1862. Several weeks later, General Lee sent Major General Ambrose P. Hill’s division, including General Branch’s brigade, to reinforce General Jackson on July 27. General Branch and his men were soon embroiled in a season of active campaigning that did not cease until after the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862.

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