A Forgotten Hero Of The Civil War
Civil War enthusiasts are generally familiar with Lee, Grant, Sherman and Jackson. However, they rarely know enough about their subordinates, who actually carried out their plans.
Couch was a cantankerous, impatient man who directed his temper at subordinates and superiors alike.
No question, he was a capable fighting general and all of his superiors recognized it. He was personally fearless and his men were at the center of most of the battles of the first few years of the war. He was described as a slight man, and undoubtedly his health problem affected his appetite and absorption of nutrients.
Education and Pre-War Activities
Darius Couch graduated from West Point in 1846, where his classmates included: George Stoneman, Stonewall Jackson, George McClellan, Jesse Reno (a roommate), George Pickett, John Gibbon and Cadmus Wilcox. On graduation, he joined the artillery service, and saw action in the Mexican War. At Buena Vista he was brevetted for gallantry. He then spent much of the next 5 years on garrison duty.
He then took a leave of absence. Taking a sabbatical from the US military isn’t common. He conducted a scientific mission on behalf of the Smithsonian Institution in northern Mexico. He discovered new species of snake, lizard, bird and toad, all named after him. In Mexico, he developed an illness that stayed with him the rest of his life.
Like many travelers to Mexico before and since, Couch developed chronic dysentery. Most biographies neglect this problem but it became a real problem during the Civil War. When he returned, he went back to garrison duty, and then in 1855 resigned to become a NYC merchant and then worked in his wife’s family business.
With the outbreak of war, he was immediately given regimental command, and then promoted to division command. His initial post until March 1862 was a crucial one.
His first wartime responsibility was building the defenses of Washington DC and training the military in that district. He was then promoted on the basis of his prior wartime experience.
Battlefield Contributions in the Peninsula Campaign
Brigadier General Couch first saw battle in the Civil War during the Peninsula Campaign. His division fought at Yorktown, Williamsburg and during the Seven Days.
At Seven Pines, Couch’s Corps commander General Sumner ordered him forward of the defense line. Despite being isolated and without support, his men held their position for a full day before being driven back. His reputation as a courageous division commander unafraid to be in the thick of battle began here.
He continued to lead his division through Malvern Hill. Then he offered to resign. His health was limiting his involvement, he thought. McClellan refused his resignation, would not send it forward, and had him promoted to Major General.
As General McClellan pursued Lee past Franklin in September 1862, Couch led I Division of IV Corps. He was just several miles outside of Crampton’s Gap when his former roommate General Reno was killed there. And never did make it to the Antietam battlefield. He was in position to assist General Franklin at Harpers Ferry but wasn’t ordered to do so until well after its capture.
No one seems to have any understanding of Couch’s activities for those few days; neither Sears in Landscape Turned Red nor Gambone in his Couch biography can find supporting records. Catton wrote that McClellan gave him orders to march and countermarch, but it is unclear why or where.
Subsequently, General Sumner was relieved and Couch became II Corps commander. Couch’s Division commanders were: Brig. Gens. Winfield Scott Hancock, Oliver Otis Howard, and William H. French.
Soon thereafter, McClellan was relieved and Burnside appointed general in chief. His plan was an amphibious invasion across the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg. Couch’s corps’ responsibility at the onset of the battle was to support the Union engineers’ efforts to lay pontoon bridges across the Rappahannock River and into the town. When Confederate fire repeatedly prevented this, and a heavy artillery bombardment failed as well. Couch sent small groups of soldiers across in pontoon boats to dislodge the defenders. This amphibious assault, which finally succeeded in driving out the Confederates, was executed by one of Couch’s brigades.
Couch was centrally involved in the assault on Marye’s Heights. II Corps was at the vanguard of the attack. His corps was ordered to attack the Confederate position at the base of Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg. Couch entered the town’s courthouse and climbed its cupola, where he watched first French’s division, then Hancock’s division and finally Howard. All divisions took huge casualties; his corps had 4000 casualties.
Couch was dismayed at the severe casualties of his two divisions in the hour of fighting and realized that the tactics were not working. He considered a massive bayonet charge along the right flank to overwhelm the defenders, but he realized that French’s and Hancock’s divisions were in no shape to move forward again.
Couch later wrote: “It was a night of dreadful suffering. Many died of wounds & exposure, and as fast as men died they stiffened in the wintry air, & on the front line were rolled forward for protection to the living. Frozen men were placed for dumb sentries.”
Couch continued to lead II Corps. With Sumner replaced (and soon dead), Couch’s official role in the Army of the Potomac as the senior corps commander, made him Hooker’s second-in-command.
Howard became promoted to Corps command. Gibbon took over Howard’s former division. Hancock, and thus Couch, was placed at the center of Hooker’s defensive line to absorb any attack. Of course, Stonewall Jackson’s surprise attack went to the right flank, finding Howard unprepared.
In watching Confederate artillery mass to attack Hancock’s men forming a defense, Couch demonstrated his personal bravery. Couch told his staff “Let us draw their fire.” The group of mounted officers clustered around a clearing where the enemy cannon could easily view them, thus attracting their fire. The marching infantry was not attacked and Couch and his staff went unharmed.
Couch’s role on May 3, 1863, the day that Hooker became stunned by a shell hitting the pillar of the Chancellor home. Moreover, a crucial moment in his military career, he has been criticized unfairly for his actions.
Hooker became groggy and turned control of the army over to Couch.
As senior corps commander he wanted to take command of the army based on Hooker’s head injury but only if Hooker completely removed himself from the field which Hooker refused to do. Couch consulted with Hooker who insisted on withdrawal. Couch thus was a temporary executive officer, not really designated commander in chief or he would have attacked.
Couch was one of the three corps commanders, along with Meade and Reynolds, who opposed retreating from Chancellorsville and favored using their corps (the 5th and 1st were essentially unscathed while the 2nd had been bloodied but not terribly so- those troops by themselves almost equaled Lee’s army at that point). He said so at the infamous night meeting in which Hooker asked for opinions but had already decided.
Couch quarreled with Hooker after the defeat at Chancellorsville. He asked Lincoln for a reassignment. He would no longer work with Hooker. Lincoln offered him command of the Army of the Potomac. He advised instead General Meade. Although most everyone knows it was offered to General Reynolds, few know that Reynolds wasn’t the first choice either. Couch would have done a fine job at Gettysburg, but obviously Meade did very well.
He was placed in charge of a department thought far from the upcoming action. He became commander of the Department of the Susquehanna, based in Harrisburg, PA. Ewell’s opponent in that part of the campaign was General Couch, who tried to to put together a defense comprised of inexperienced militia.
With Couch’s re-assignment, Winfield Scott Hancock was promoted to Corps command. It is impossible to imagine the battle without Hancock’s battlefield leadership. Couch would not have been the dynamic force that Hancock was at Gettysburg, but not a disaster. Couch was competent and thoroughly professional. But Hancock was someone Meade had complete trust in and that trust couldn’t have been duplicated with Couch.
Jubal Early invaded Couch’s department in 1864 as an extension of the Valley Campaign. This included the Battle of Monocacy. The burning of Chambersburg also occurred in his command. Again, he has become criticized for allowing that to occur, but again, he had only a small militia to combat Early’s movement.
Couch was then transferred west. He commanded a division on the front lines at Franklin-Nashville. He was significantly involved in the Battle of Nashville. General Thomas has wanted him for Corps Command but Washington refused to allow it, based on their dissatisfaction with him against Early.
He finished as a participant in the Carolinas Campaign.
Written by Dr. Lloyd Klein
Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein
Civil War Historian Dr. Lloyd W Klein Dr. Lloyd W. Klein is Clinical Professor of Medicine in the Cardiology Division of the University of California, San Francisco. In addition, Dr. Klein is an accomplished consultant, author, lecturer and investigator. In addition, with over thirty-five years’ experience and expertise in managing myocardial infarction and tailoring coronary revascularization strategies.
Moreover, Dr. Klein is a nationally recognized expert in individualizing coronary revascularization strategies. He has published extensively on analyzing operator quality and decision making.
Dr. Klein is also an amateur historian who has read extensively on the Civil War with a particular interest in political and military leadership and their economic ramifications. Furthermore, Dr. Klein has published numerous articles on the Civil War. Moreover, with a special concentration in why decisions were made and the people who made them. Lastly, using his professional experience in appraising leadership, he is especially insightful in evaluating the internal and external motivations which influenced decisions in battle and in the political hall.
Please see Dr. Klein’s Works:
AM Gambone, Major-General Darius Nash Couch. Enigmatic Valor. Butternut and Blue, 2000.
Catton, Bruce. Glory Road. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1952.
A Forgotten Hero Of The Civil War