Thursday, June 30, 2011

150 Years Ago: the Sumter Runs the Blockade

CSS SumterImage via Wikipedia

On Sunday, June 30, 1861, Raphael Semme's career as a commerce raider for the Confederacy began.  His warship, the C.S.S. Sumter, ran the blockade at the mouth of the Mississippi River and escaped to the high seas.

Commerce raiding is a form of naval warfare in which one side, almost always the weaker power, attacks the merchant shipping of the other side.  In the case of the Confederacy, whose navy was almost nonexistent at this time, the principle goal was to force the Union to deploy ships to protect the merchant ships, weakening the blockade of Southern ports.

Semmes was a 35-year veteran of the U.S. Navy.  Born in Maryland and living in Alabama when the war began, he resigned his commission and joined the Confederate Navy.  He was soon sent to New Orleans where he began to convert a steamer, the Havana, into a cruiser.  The conversion was complete on June 3, but Semmes found all avenues of escape blocked by Union warships.

On June 21, the U.S.S. Powhatan left her station.  Semmes took the Sumter to Pass a l'Outre, but was unable to find a river pilot who would guide him past the mud bars at the mouth of the Mississippi before the Powhatan returned.

Finally, on June 30, the U.S.S. Brooklyn left her station to pursue another ship.  Semmes took advantage and sped toward the Gulf.  One river pilot lost his nerve, claiming he hadn't been through this pass in three months, but another soon arrived to take the Sumter out.

The Brooklyn spotted the Sumter and broke off its pursuit of the other vessel to give chase -- a chase that would last over four hours before the Brooklyn finally gave it up and returned to her post.

Over the next six months, Semmes and the Sumter would disrupt shipping in the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, capturing 17 merchant ships.  It all came to an end in January 1862 at Gibraltar.  The Sumter was in for repairs when Union ships blockaded the port.  Semmes decommissioned the Sumter and sold her, then escaped to England. 
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Wednesday, June 29, 2011

150 Years Ago: McDowell's Plan

Irvin McDowell. Library of Congress descriptio...Image via Wikipedia

On June 29, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called his cabinet and military advisers to the White House to evaluate the plan General Irvin McDowell had recently submitted to the War Department for attacking the Confederate army at Manassas Junction.

McDowell commanded the Department of Northeastern Virginia, with headquarters at Arlington in what had until recently been the home of Robert E. Lee.  Although he was a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army, McDowell had never led troops in combat.

McDowell worried that his army of green troops was not ready for battle, but he was beginning to feel enormous political pressure.  "Forward to Richmond" would soon be a ceaseless refrain; the people of the North were ready for action.  There was also a time constraint.  When Lincoln had called for 75,000 militia after Fort Sumter, most Americans -- North and South -- had envisioned a very short war.  The initial wave of recruits had been signed to three-month enlistments and they would soon begin expiring.

McDowell came up with a very solid plan.  With 30,000 men and another 10,000 in reserve, he would move south to confront General P. G. T. Beauregard's 24,000-man army at Manassas.  The key was to keep Beauregard from being reinforced by General Joseph E. Johnston's 11,000-man army in the Shenandoah Valley.  The Federal army along the upper Potomac, led by General Robert Patterson, would move south and engage with Johnston, keeping them busy while McDowell took care of Beauregard.

General-in-Chief Winfield Scott was the main dissenting voice.  He told Lincoln he "did not believe in a little war by piece-meal."  His plan for dealing with the rebellion, derisively labeled "the Anaconda Plan," involved blockading the Confederate coast and mounting a campaign down the Mississippi to cut the Confederacy in half.

But Scott's plan would take too long.  Much time would be needed to build up the naval forces and train the troops.  The president, the cabinet, and the public wanted action now.  Scott eventually withdrew his opposition and McDowell's plan was approved.  He was told to begin his advance on July 9.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

150 Years Ago: the St. Nicholas

On Friday, June 28, 1861, a band of Confederates captured the side-wheel steamer St. Nicholas as it made its regular run between Baltimore and Washington.

The plan was hatched by two Marylanders, George Hollins and Richard Thomas.  Hollins, who had joined the U.S. Navy in 1814 at age 15, had recently resigned his commission.  He was commissioned a captain in the Confederate Navy on June 20, 1861.  Richard Thomas was a shady character who had dropped out of West Point in 1850.  In the years before the Civil War, he was said to have fought as a mercenary in China.  He was also said to have fought with Garabaldi in Italy.  When the war started, he was calling himself Richard Thomas Zarvona.

Their plan was to capture the St. Nicholas, a passenger ship that provided supplies to various Union vessels in Chesapeake Bay, and use it to capture the U.S.S. Pawnee, one of the U.S. Navy's most powerful warships.  Virginia Governor John Letcher was excited about the plan and gave them $1000 to carry it out.  Thomas traveled to Baltimore where he bought weapons and recruited members of the raiding party.

When the steamer left Baltimore on June 28, there were around 60 passengers on board, including 16 men who had been recruited by Thomas posing as paying passengers.  But Thomas was nowhere to be found.  George Watt, one of the recruits, later said, "What worried me a lot was I couldn’t find the Colonel or anyone who looked like him.  I could see the future of the whole expedition as also I could see myself behind bars in Ft. McHenry, and the picture didn’t look a bit good to me."

Thomas was on board, disguised as a flirtatious Frenchwoman named Madame LaForce.  Watt later described "her" as "a mighty pretty young woman, stylishly dressed, flirting outrageously with some of the young officers.  She talked with a strong French accent and carried a fan which she used like a Spanish dancer.  That young woman behaved so scandalously that all the other women on the boat were in a terrible state over it."  Other passengers said she was petite, wore a hoop skirt and covered her face with a veil that exposed only her bright red lips.  Mme. LaForce soon retired to her cabin to sort through three trunks of fine French hats.

George Hollins boarded the steamer at its first stop at Point Lookout.  Soon, the band of pirates met up in the Frenchwoman's room.  There, in the three trunks under the fine French hats, were the weapons.  They quickly armed themselves, then took over the ship.  With Hollins now in command, they locked the Union soldiers and the ship's crew in the hold, then landed on the Virginia bank of the Chesapeake to pick up a crew of Confederate soldiers.

They eventually learned that the Pawnee, the object of the mission, had been recalled to Washington, so they headed toward the Rappahannock.  En route they encountered and captured three more merchant vessels, the Monticello, loaded with 3500 bags of Brazilian coffee, the Mary Pierce and her 200 tons of ice, and the Margaret, with 270 tons of coal. 

The band became instant celebrities in the Confederacy.  Hollins soon received a promotion to commodore and was sent to New Orleans to command the naval forces there at the end of July.  Thomas met with Virginia Governor John Letcher, who commissioned him as a colonel in the active volunteer forces of the State.  On July 8, he would try another daring mission, to capture the Columbia, a sister ship of the St. Nicholas.  But the captain of the St. Nicholas was on board, on his way home after being released by the Confederate authorities.  He recognized the men and they were arrested.  Thomas was finally exchanged in 1863 and spent the remainder of the war in Europe.

Monday, June 27, 2011

150 Years Ago: the Blockade Strategy Board

On Thursday, June 27, 1861, the Blockade Strategy Board met for the first time in Washington.  This was a forerunner of the present-day joint staff system, with members of various branches of the armed forces meeting to discuss ways to work together to implement war aims.

In this case, the board was put together by the Department of the Navy to develop a preliminary strategy for enforcing the blockade of the Southern States.  It consisted of two Navy men, Captain Samuel Du Pont, who acted as chairman, and Commander Charles Henry Davis, the recording secretary, Major John Barnard of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Alexander Bache of the U.S. Coast Survey.

The board's first report on July 5 recommended seizing Fernandina, Florida, and using it as the southern anchor of the Atlantic blockading line.  That action was postponed until after the capture of Hatteras Inlet and Port Royal.

The board developed strategies for enforcing the blockade and identified points on the Confederate coast that could be captured and used as coaling stations and bases.  The Navy Department followed the board's recommendations closely throughout the war.  After solving the most pressing problems the Navy had in 1861, the board disbanded and never met again.

Friday, June 24, 2011

150 Years Ago: the World's First Machine Gun Salesman

Ager "Coffee Mill" GunImage via Wikipedia

On June 24, 1863, J. D. Mills became the world's first machine gun salesman, demonstrating Wilson Agur's Union Repeating Gun for Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln dubbed it the "coffee mill gun."

The demonstration was held in the hayloft of Hall's carriage shop on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.  Lincoln, a lover of gadgets, fired the gun.

The next day Mills was at the Washington Arsenal, demonstrating the gun for three cabinet members, five generals, and other dignitaries.  Major General Joseph Mansfield, commanding the Washington defenses, requested a number of the guns, but the request got lost in the bureaucracy.

Mills would be back in October to finally complete the world's first machine gun sale.

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

150 Years Ago: Ballooning

Lowe's Enterprise in Harper's Weekly (1861), f...Image via Wikipedia

On June 23, 1861, hot air balloons were used for military purposes for the first time in U.S. history by Thaddeus Lowe.

Lowe, one of the most famous balloonists in the country, left a lucrative career to see what use he could be to his country.  He found himself vying with others to become Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.  On this date 150 years ago, he was at Falls Church, Virginia, headquarters of the army's Topographical Corps, trying to prove the balloon's military usefulness to skeptical generals.

Lowe's balloon, the Enterprise, was anchored at Falls Church for two days and made numerous assents.  General Daniel Tyler, commander of the First Division of McDowell's Army of Northeastern Virginia, sent an officer aloft with Lowe .  He did the first American aerial reconnaissance, observing the movements of the Confederate forces around Fairfax Courthouse.  The officer also sketched a map of the countryside.

After his two day trial, Lowe returned to Washington.  He was asked to give an estimate of the cost of making balloons.  He was soon informed that he had been underbid by a competitor, John Wise.  Lowe quickly moved on, beginning a series of experiments on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

150 Years Ago: Boonville and Greeneville

Months of tension reached a climax in Missouri on Monday, June 17, 1861, near the little town of Boonville. 

A meeting had been set up days earlier in St. Louis to try to bring some peace to the divided state, but it had ended with Union General Nathaniel Lyon declaring war on the pro-Southern leaders, Governor Claiborne Jackson and General Sterling Price.

After the meeting, Jackson and Price fled to the state capital of Jefferson City.  They quickly decided that the capital could not be held and retreated with the State Guard northwest to Boonville.  They needed time to consolidate the militia forces at Boonville and Lexington, and to train and arm them.  But time was the one thing Lyon did not intend to give them.

Price had planned to retreat from Boonville if Lyon's army showed up, but he became ill with dysentary and traveled on to Lexington where more militia forces were gathering, leaving the governor in charge.  Jackson, fearing the political price of another retreat, decided to have the showdown at Boonville.

Lyon's army of 1700, two volunteer brigades, a company of regulars and an artillery battery, advanced down the Rocheport Road toward Boonville.  They ran into Colonel John Marmaduke's regiment of militia, some 500 men, positioned around a house, its outbuildings and a wheat field.  Union artillery fire drove the militiamen back, but they quickly regrouped on a nearby ridge.  More artillery fire drove the militiamen back through their camp to the fairgrounds east of town.  Supported by fire from an eight-inch howitzer aboard the
Augustus McDowell on the nearby Missouri River, the Union forces flanked the line of militia and the retreat quickly turned into a rout.  The militia disintegrated; the men scattering in all directions.

The bulk of the fighting lasted less than thirty minutes and casualties were light on both sides, but the consequences were huge.  The Union army now had control of the Missouri River and much of the state, including the state capital.  Although the fighting in Missouri would continue throughout much of the war, Governor Claiborne Jackson's dream of putting the state in the Confederacy were over.  Much of the militia would retreat with Jackson to the extreme southwestern corner of the state and attempt to regroup.

Also on this date, in Greenville, Tennessee, delegates met in a convention to discuss ways to keep east Tennessee in the Union.

The pro-Unionists of East Tennessee followed a script that was very similar to the one the pro-Unionists of western Virginia followed.  The main difference was that the Tennesseans did not have a Union army nearby to help them out.

The east Tennesseans met in Knoxville on May 30-31 to protest Governor Isham Harris's efforts to align the state with the Confederacy.  One of their biggest grievances was that Harris had called for a statewide referendum on June 8 to approve an "Ordinance of Secession," skipping a convention to debate the issue.  After many speeches condemning the governor and the state legislature for their disregard of the U.S. Constitution, the delegates agreed to meet again if Tennessee voters approved secession.

The Greeneville convention got underway on June 17.  The first two days were spent mainly on organizing the convention, debating voting rules, and speechmaking.  On the third day, the delegates heard two similar sets of resolutions.  The first called for the formation of military companies, and pledged retaliation if any convention members were harmed or if the region were occupied by Confederate forces. The second set of resolutions was less violent in nature, mainly resolving to send a memorial to the state legislature seeking its consent for the region to form a separate state.

The second set of resolutions was adopted after much debate.  The memorial was sent to the legislature, which rejected the convention's bid for statehood.  The legislature promised not to pass any conscription laws, but the governor sent Confederate troops into the region to protect secessionists there.  Many delegates fled to the north or went into hiding.

In other news, in Washington, Thaddeus S. C. Lowe ascended in a tethered balloon some 500 feet above the White House to demonstrate the effectiveness of aerial reconnaissance.  Using a telegraph set he communicated with Lincoln, "I have the pleasure of sending you this first dispatch ever telegraphed from an aerial station..."  In July 1861, Lowe would be named Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army Balloon Corps.  He made several successful observations, but disputes over his operations and his pay forced his resignation in 1863.
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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

150 Years Ago: Johnston Withdraws from Harper's Ferry

Plate from "Picturesque America", Ha...Image via Wikipedia

General Joseph E. Johnston had been in command of the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah for about three weeks, since May 24, 1861, and he did not like the position he was in at Harper's Ferry.  The town was important for both sides, but it was impossible to defend; it would change hands eight times during the war.  On Saturday, June 15, 1861, Johnston withdrew his army, some 10,000 men organized into four brigades, toward Winchester.

Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) had a very strategic location on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.  It was where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and the states of Maryland and Virginia met.  It was also the site of the United States Armory and Arsenal, one of only two such facilities in the country (the other at Springfield, Illinois) where small arms were produced for the U.S. Army.  Until April 1861, that is.

When Virginia seceded, the U.S. Army garrison at the arsenal evacuated.  They tried to burn the buildings and destroy the equipment before they left, but local citizens saved the machinery.  Major General Kenton Harper of the Virginia Militia quickly organized two thousand militiamen at Harper's Ferry and put Brigadier General Thomas Jackson in charge.  The equipment was sent to Richmond for safe keeping, and this group of militia formed the nucleus of Johnston's army.

Johnston had taken command in May when Virginia Governor John Letcher turned the state troops over to Confederate control.  Jackson became one of Johnston's most important lieutenants.

Robert E. Lee, who had overall command of the state troops until they were turned over to the Confederacy, had advised Johnston to hold onto Harper's Ferry.  To give it up, he said, "would be depressing to the cause of the South."  But Johnston was in an impossible position.  The town sat on a low flood plain with the heights of the Blue Ridge Mountains all around it.  It was at the bottom of a bowl.  On top of that, two Federal armies had his attention -- Robert Patterson's army (also named the Army of the Shenandoah) was just across the Potomac in Maryland and George McClellan's was somewhere to his west in the Virginia mountains.  Johnston had to find a more favorable position.  He eventually settled at Bunker Hill.

During his time at Harper's Ferry, Jackson had commandeered the B & O trains that came through, 42 locomotives and 386 freight cars.  Most of these were wrecked and thrown into the river, but Jackson used horses to haul fourteen locomotives and some boxcars by road to Strasburg, where they were put on the Manassas Gap Railroad for Confederate use.

An aside:  Rather quickly after the start of the war, the pro-Unionist counties of western Virginia would break away from the rest of the state, seceding from the secessionists to form the new state of West Virginia.  Harper's Ferry, then in Virginia would be located in the new state.  In 1890, the United States Board on Geographic Names, which is responsible for formally naming municipalities and natural landmarks, removed most apostrophes so as to not imply ownership of a place.  What was once Harper's Ferry, Virginia, is now Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

Another aside:  Harper's Ferry was the site of John Brown's raid in October 1859.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

150 Years Ago: Lyon Captures Jefferson City

(Brig. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon)Image via Wikipedia

On Friday, June 14, 1861, Union General Nathaniel Lyon captured the Missouri capital, Jefferson City, without a fight.  Governor Claiborne Jackson and General Sterling Price fled south to Boonville, where the state militia were gathered.  Jackson's administration was now a government-in-exile; Lyon had seized the machinery of the state government.

In a meeting earlier in the week that had been set up to attempt to bring some peace to Missouri, Lyon had declared war on the pro-Southern forces in the state led by Jackson and Price.  The seizure of the capital was just the first step.  He would, with barely a pause, move on to Boonville to battle the state militia forces there.

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Monday, June 13, 2011

150 Years Ago: Romney

1860 B&OImage via Wikipedia

On the morning of June 13, 1861, Union troops under Colonel Lew Wallace crossed into Romney, Virginia (now West Virginia), ran off the Confederates there, and went back the way they came.

Now barely two months past Fort Sumter, the war was still just a series of small skirmishes where the armies got a little too close together.  Wallace received orders to travel from Cumberland, Maryland, to Romney to dislodge some Confederates in the town, a strategic point on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.

It was vital that the Union control the B & O.  It connected Washington to the western states.

Wallace commanded the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment, a Zouaves unit.  They crossed the Potomac by train, then marched south to Romney, some 25 to 30 miles away.  Most of the action took place at a covered bridge that crossed the South Branch of the Potomac at the entrance to the town.  There the Confederates had a battery of two guns and sharpshooters in a nearby house, Sycamore Dale.

Wallace's advance guard crossed the bridge at a run, leapt down an embankment and engaged the troops in the house.  As Wallace got more troops across the bridge, they combined and drove the Confederates out of the house.  Wallace ordered it to be burned.  When he returned later, he found that the owner, David Gibson, had talked his troops out of it.  Wallace listened to Gibson's plea and withdrew the order, and used the house as his headquarters during his brief stay in the town.

The Confederates and most of the residents of Romney scattered out of the town.  Wallace searched the town for weapons and supplies, then withdrew back to Cumberland.  It's not clear why Wallace withdrew.

Oral history and a town marker claim that Romney changed hands 56 times during the war.  It was probably fewer than ten.  After Wallace's departure, Colonel A. P. Hill brought a larger force of Confederate troops in to occupy the town the next day.

Lew Wallace would go on to become a major general, but his postwar career would be much more successful.  He would serve as governor of New Mexico Territory and as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire, but he would become world famous as the author of Ben-Hur.

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Saturday, June 11, 2011

150 Years Ago: A Meeting in St. Louis

On Tuesday, June 11, 1861, moderates in Missouri arranged a meeting between Union General Nathaniel Lyon, Frank Blair, Governor Claiborne Jackson and Sterling Price in St. Louis to try to keep the conflict from spreading in the state.  They met around 11 a.m. at the Planter's House hotel.  The meeting lasted for four or five hours and was very stormy; the two sides had opposing goals and neither trusted the other.

At first, Lyon deferred to Blair, his political counterpart, but as the meeting progressed and grew more contentious Lyon became more outspoken.  For a short time it seemed like an uneasy ceasefire between the two sides might be established.  Governor Jackson offered to disband Price's pro-Southern state guards and remain neutral if the Federals would disband the pro-Unionist St. Louis home guards and promise not to move troops into any part of the state not already occupied by Federal soldiers.

Lyon refused, demanding that the militia be disbanded but refusing to disband the home guards.  Then declared,
"Rather than concede to the State of Missouri the right to demand that my government shall not enlist troops within her limits, or bring troops into the State whenever it pleases, or move troops at its own will into, out of, or through the State; rather than concede to the State of Missouri for one single instant the right to dictate to my government in any matter, however unimportant, I would see you, and you, and you, and you, [pointing to each man in the room] and every man, woman, and child in the State dead and buried. This means war. In an hour one of my officers will call for you and conduct you out of my lines."
Rather than wait for the escort out, Jackson and Price left immediately for the capital, Jefferson City.  On the way, Jackson ordered the destruction of key bridges and telegraph lines.  He also issued a proclamation calling for 50,000 militia:
"Rise, then, and drive out ignominiously the invaders who have dared to desecrate the soil which your labors have made fruitful, and which is consecrated by your homes."
Lyon quickly had his troops on the move toward the capital.

Also on this date:  The Wheeling Convention

150 Years Ago: The Wheeling Convention

Delegates from 27 counties in pro-Unionist western Virginia met in mid-May to determine a course of action if Virginia voters should ratify the state's Ordinance of Secession on May 23.  Soon were for immediate action; a resolution was introduced to break away from the rest of the state and create a state called "New Virginia."

This proposal was ultimately declared to be too revolutionary.  One delegate declared that it was "triple treason" against the state of Virginia, the United States and the Confederacy.  The delegates soon agreed to wait for the outcome of the vote and to meet again on June 11 if voters ratified the Ordinance of Secession.

On Tuesday, June 11, 1861, the Second Wheeling Convention convened at Washington Hall in Wheeling, Virginia.  They quickly moved the proceedings to the larger Custom House.  Almost all of the delegates agreed that the differences between western and eastern Virginia were irreconcilable and supported separation from the secessionists. The only real argument was over what course of action to take.  John Carlile, representing the Committee on Business, opened the debate by introducing "A Declaration of the People of Virginia."

This declaration proclaimed that the state convention that had adopted the Ordinance of Secession was "a usurpation" which would "inevitably subject (the people of Virginia) to a military despotism."
The Convention, by its pretended ordinances, has required the people of Virginia to separate from and wage war against the government of the United States, and against the citizens of neighboring State, with whom they have heretofore maintained friendly, social and business relations:

It has attempted to subvert the Union founded by Washington and his co-patriots in the purer days of the republic, which has conferred unexampled prosperity upon every class of citizens, and upon every section of the country:

It has attempted to transfer the allegiance of the people to an illegal confederacy of rebellious States, and required their submission to its pretended edicts and decrees:

It has attempted to place the whole military force and military operations of the Commonwealth under the control and direction of such confederacy, for offensive as well as defensive purposes.

It has, in conjunction with the State executive, instituted wherever their usurped power extends, a reign of terror intended to suppress the free expression of the will of the people, making elections a mockery and a fraud:

The same combination, even before the passage of the pretended ordinance of secession, instituted war by the seizure and appropriation of the property of the Federal Government, and by organizing and mobilizing armies, with the avowed purpose of capturing or destroying the Capitol of the Union:

They have attempted to bring the allegiance of the people of the United States into direct conflict with their subordinate allegiance to the State, thereby making obedience to their pretended Ordinance, treason against the former.
Some of the delegates were for immediate separation from the eastern part of the state and the establishment of a new state.  In fact, Carlile had taken that position at the first Wheeling Convention.  He now decided that that went against the Virginia state constitution.  "I find that even I, who first started the little stone down the mountain, have now to apply the rubbers to other gentlemen who have outrun me in the race, to check their impetuosity."

Carlile's new position was that secession had vacated the offices of the existing state government.  The convention should reorganize the state government.  The legislature of the new "Restored government of Virginia" could then approve the separation of the western counties.  This plan was unanimously accepted on  June 19.  The following day, the convention selected new state officers.  Francis Pierpont of Marion County was elected governor.

Also on this date:  A Meeting in St. Louis

Thursday, June 09, 2011

150 Years Ago: Big Bethel

A sketch by Thomas Nast (died 1902, over 100 y...Image via Wikipedia

On June 10, 1861, the battle of Big Bethel took place near the tip of the Virginia Peninsula.  If it had occurred later in the war it would hardly be worth mentioning, but at this early stage -- almost two months to the day after Fort Sumter was fired upon -- it was the first significant battle of the Civil War with 5500 men engaged on both sides.

When Virginia seceded, almost all of the Federal property in the state was quickly seized by the state authorities, but the small regular U.S. Army garrison at Fort Monroe on the tip of the Virginia Peninsula was quickly reinforced.  The fort would remain in Union hands throughout the war.

Major General Benjamin Butler was put in command of the garrison in May 1861.  He quickly expanded his position, occupying the towns of Newport News and Hampton, Virginia.

Before he became temporarily unemployed, Robert E. Lee responded to this threat by sending Colonel John Magruder to the area.  Magruder set up a forward base about eight miles from Hampton at Little Bethel Church and a well-fortified position a little further north at Big Bethel Church behind Brick Kiln Creek.  Magruder's small Virginia force was soon increased to 1500, and they quickly got to work harassing Butler's pickets and patrols.

Butler was especially worried that these Confederates could disrupt his lines of communication with his forces at Newport News and Hampton.  He worked up a plan for a night march and a surprise attack at dawn with an aide, Major Theodore Winthrop.  The plan proved to be too much for the green troops and officers to pull off.

Brigadier General Ebenezer Peirce commanded the assault.  Two columns were to converge near the enemy's position, drive them back and burn the churches.  To avoid confusion in the dark, units were given white patches or rags to wear on their left arms.  They were also to yell "Boston" as a watchword.

Colonel Adam Duryée's 5th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment led the assault.  As they approached the enemy position, the 7th New York and the 3rd New York met where two roads merged into one.  A friendly fire situation quickly developed; the 7th New York thought they had met up with the enemy and began firing at the other regiment of New Yorkers.  Twenty-one men in the 3rd were wounded, two mortally.

The element of surprise was gone.  The Confederates at Little Bethel quickly withdrew to the fortifications at Big Bethel.  Meanwhile, Duryée's men, thinking the Confederates were behind them attempting to cut them off from their comrades, withdrew.  A Union officer who arrived at the scene at dawn found disorganized men wandering around, "looking more like men enjoying a huge picnic than soldiers awaiting battle."

The attack was finally launched, but Peirce, who had never led men in battle before, had trouble coordinating the frontal assault on the Confederate works.  The piecemeal attacks were beaten back.

Winthrop led a detachment through a swamp to assault the Confederate left flank.  Winthrop waved his sword, shouted, "Come on boys, one more charge and the day is ours!," and was immediately shot through the heart.  This assault was beaten back by the Confederates.  The 5th New York crossed a little further downstream and tried another assault on the Confederate left.  They found themselves unsupported and cut off and quickly withdrew.  Colonel D. H. Hill, commanding the Confederate forces on the left, later reported that his men "were all in wild glee, and seemed to enjoy it as much as boys do rabbit-shooting."

The Union forces finally called it off; they withdrew back to Newport News and Hampton.  Total Federal casualties were 18 killed, 60 wounded, and one missing. The other notable Union death (besides Winthrop, an accomplished writer and poet) was Lieutenant John Greble.  He was the first West Point graduate and the first U.S. Regular Army officer killed in the war.

Within hours of the battle, Magruder withdrew the Confederate forces to a stronger position at Yorktown.  Only one Confederate soldier was killed; Private Henry Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Regiment was the first Confederate enlisted man to be killed in the war.  Seven were wounded.

A sketch of the battlefield can be found here.
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Wednesday, June 08, 2011

150 Years Ago: Saturday, June 8, 1861

On June 8, 1861, voters in Tennessee chose secession 104,913 to 47,238.  The vote was a foregone conclusion; Tennessee Governor Isham Harris and the state legislature virtually already had the state in the Confederacy.

Much of the pro-Union vote came in the eastern part of the state.  Wherever the Appalachian Mountains ran through the South, through western Virginia and North Carolina, eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, and even into northern Georgia and Alabama, Union patriotism was high, slave population was low, and there was a resentment against the flatlanders who were in power.

Also on this date, the United States Sanitary Commission was authorized by President Lincoln and Secretary of War Simon Cameron.  The USSC was set up to coordinate the volunteer war efforts of women.  They raised money, worked as nurses, ran kitchens in army camps, made uniforms, and performed other duties.

Robert E. Lee was unemployed.  He had been in overall command of the Virginia state troops.  On this day, Virginia Governor John Letcher turned the troops over to the Confederate government.

In the western part of the state, Brigadier General Robert Garnett took command of the rattled Confederate troops that participated in the Philippi races.

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Monday, June 06, 2011

150 Years Ago: Political Generals

Henry A. Wise.Image via Wikipedia

On Thursday, June 6, 1861, Confederate Brigadier General Henry Wise was assigned to command in western Virginia.

Wise, formerly the governor of Virginia, was a textbook example of a political general.  It was a common practice during the Civil War for politicians and other leading citizens to be promoted to high rank.  It was almost always done for some political gain, but it was also thought that these men had leadership skills that would offset their lack of military training.

It seems odd today, but in the huge volunteer armies that were taking shape in 1861 it was common practice for the enlisted men to choose the officers who would lead them.  Often it was the local authority figure, who most likely had recruited and formed the unit.

This intermingling of military and politics was common North and South.  Results were mixed.  Some of the civilian leaders turned out to be natural-born military geniuses who put the West Pointers to shame.  Some of the civilians, like Wise, were not up to the task at hand and were shunted aside, quietly retired or sent off to some backwater post.  Wise spent most of his time in western Virginia feuding with another political general, former U.S. Secretary of War John Floyd..

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Sunday, June 05, 2011

150 Years Ago: Beauregard's Proclamation.

On Wednesday, June 5, 1861, General P. G. T. Beauregard, who was then concentrating his Army of Northern Virginia around Manassas, issued a proclamation to the inhabitants of the region:

CAMP PICKENS, June 5, 1861.

To the good people of the Counties of Lowtown, Fairfax and Prince William:

A reckless and unprincipled tyrant has invaded your soil ABRAHAM LINCOLN, regardless of all moral, legal and constitutional restraints, has thrown his Abolitionists among you, who are murdering and imprisoning your citizens, confiscating and destroying your property, and committing other acts of violence and out age too shocking and revolting to humanity to be enumerated. All rules of civilized warfare are abandoned, and they proclaim by their acts, if not on their banners, that their war-cry is "beauty and booty." All that is dear to man -- your honor, and that of your wives and daughters, your fortunes and your lives, are involved in this momentous contest.

In the name, therefore of the constituted authorities of the Confederate States -- in the sacred cause of constitutional liberty and self-government, for which we are contending -- in behalf of civilization and humanity itself. I, G.T. BEAUREGARD, Brigadier-General of the Confederate States, commanding at Camp Pickens, Manassas Junction, do make this my proclamation, and invite and enjoin you, by every consideration dear to the hearts of freemen and patriots, by the name and memory of your revolutionary fathers, and by the purity and sanctity of your domestic firesides, to rally to the standard of your State and country, and by every means in your power, compatible with honorable warfare, to drive back and excel the invaders from your land. I conjure you to be true and loyal to your country, and her legal and constitutional authorities, and especially to be vigilant of the movements and acts of the enemy, so as to enable you to give the earliest authentic information to those head-quarters, or to the officers under my command.

I desire to assure you that the utmost protection in my power will be extended to you all.


Brig.-Gen. Commanding.
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Friday, June 03, 2011

150 Years Ago: The Death of Stephen Douglas

On June 3, 1861, Stephen Douglas, 48, died in Chicago.

Although he was Lincoln's chief rival for the presidency in the November election, Douglas spoke forcefully and often in support of the Union cause and Lincoln's prosecution of the war.  After Fort Sumter he traveled to the West (what we now consider the Midwest), rallying thousands of men to arms.  Already in ill health, the effort wore him down.

He fell ill around the first of May.  It started off as a cold, then a fever set in.  He was confined to bed.  His condition worsened; a severe attack of inflammatory rheumatism set in.  He had suffered through painful bouts of rheumatism before, but now it sapped his strength.  He rallied on May 19 and was allowed to go outside briefly for some fresh air.  The next day he was sicker than ever.  The rheumatism assumed "a typhoid character."  Other ailments piled on -- an ulcerous sore throat, "torpor of the liver" and constipation. 

In the end, he drifted in and out.  He would seem to be slipping away, then rally for a bit.  He received the last rites of the Catholic Church.  He rallied long enough to dictate a letter.  It was addressed to Virgil Hicox, leader of the Illinois Democrats, but meant to be publicized to all his supporters.  It urged all to stand strong for the Union against those who would "obliterate the United States from the map of the world."

As his wife Adele held his hand and sobbed, he drifted away for the final time just after dawn.  Someone in the room must have asked if Douglas was in any pain.  His final words were:  ""

The news was immediately telegraphed to Lincoln.  The White House and many government buildings were draped in mourning.  As the news spread, more and more tributes were paid to him throughout the nation.  Busts and portraits appeared everywhere and people draped their homes and businesses in mourning.

Douglas's body lay in state at Bryan Hall, a public auditorium on Clark Street in Chicago.  A steady stream of people passed through for two days to pay tribute to the great man.  His funeral was held on June 7, and he was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan.  The state of Illinois bought the gravesite and commissioned Leonard Volk to construct a large monument over his grave.  The Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial was completed in 1881.

Also on this date, in western Virginia, a small but significant skirmish took place that became mockingly known as "the Philippi races."

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150 Years Ago: The Philippi Races

On June 3, 1861, Union troops attacked and routed a much smaller Confederate force at Philippi, Virginia.  It was a small skirmish that had a big impact on the opening days of the Civil War.

Union Major General George McClellan was conducting the first real campaign of the war.  McClellan commanded the Department of the Ohio.  From his headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, he quickly realized the importance of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad that linked his command to Washington.

McClellan sent troops into western Virginia to secure the railroad there.  There was a small Confederate force of about 800 men under Colonel George Porterfield at Grafton, Virginia, a small village at the site of the junction of two lines of the B & O Railroad.  As the Union troops neared Grafton, the Confederates withdrew south to Philippi.

After a brief pause to regroup, two columns under Colonel Benjamin Kelley marched all night in a driving rain fifteen miles south to Philippi to launch a predawn surprise attack on the Confederate force.   This was a tremendous accomplishment for raw recruits on almost nonexistent roads over mountainous terrain in terrible weather, but the two columns, some 3000 men, converged on Philippi before dawn.

A pistol shot was to be the signal to attack.  The poorly armed, badly outnumbered Confederates were huddled in their tents to escape the terrible weather.  They had not set up picket lines to guard the perimeter of their camp.

Most of the population of this section of Virginia was pro-Unionist, but one of the Confederate sympathizers, Mrs. Thomas Humphreys, saw the Union troops advancing and sent her son on horseback to warn the encampment.  She watched as Union pickets captured the boy and fired her pistol at them.  Her shots launched the attack prematurely.

It didn't matter; the attack was still effective.  The Union troops opened up with their artillery, which awakened the sleeping Confederates.  They fled south, leaving their equipment and, in most cases, their clothes behind.  The Federal infantry followed in hot pursuit and the whole affair became known as "the Philippi races;" a shameful disgrace in the South and a big morale boost in the North.

Kelley was badly wounded while pursuing the Confederates.  Porterfield was soon relieved of command, replaced by Brigadier General Robert Garnett.

Though he was not there and didn't play any part in the skirmish, McClellan was given all the credit for the victory.  He was quickly becoming the first hero of the war in the North and would soon be called to Washington to replace Winfield Scott as General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army.

The rout emboldened the pro-Unionists of the region.  Soon they would break away, seceding from the secessionists, creating a brand-new state in the Federal Union, West Virginia.

This encounter would see the first (but certainly not the last) battlefield amputations of the war.  One of these, James Hanger, lost a leg.  He recovered and was sent home where he made an artificial leg for himself out of barrel staves and a hinge.  It worked well enough that the Virginia legislature commissioned him to make them for other veterans.  After the war, he patented the "Hanger Limb" and founded what is now Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics.

Also on this date, Stephen Douglas died in Chicago.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011

150 Years Ago: Fairfax Court House

After Fort Sumter, the Civil War began slowly like a freight train gathering speed.  Both sides had to raise armies to fight.  Men across the country, North and South, raced to join up, but arming and supplying the new recruits would be a daunting task -- many were turned away for lack of weapons.  But once the armies began forming up, they began moving and running into each other.

In the early morning hours, around 3 a.m., on Saturday, June 1, 1861, a Regular U.S. Army cavalry force of about 50 to 75 troopers under Lieutenant Charles Tompkins rode into the village of Fairfax Court House, Virginia.  They were on a reconnaissance mission to gauge Confederate strength in the area.  They found a sizable force of about 200 men in the village -- two cavalry companies and a company of infantry.

The Confederate force was just green recruits, many without arms.  Most of the cavalry fled straightaway, leaving the infantry company, the Warrenton Rifles, to do the bulk of the fighting. 

What followed was a brief skirmish that would be the first land battle of the Civil War. 

The U.S. Cavalry rode in, made a lot of noise, and captured a few prisoners, including some Confederate cavalrymen who were trying to form a line in the main road while most of their comrades rode off.  Lieutenant Colonel Richard Ewell had just arrived in town to take over the Confederate force.  He came out of his hotel into the middle of the melee and was shot in the shoulder.  Ewell would be the first Confederate field grade officer to be wounded in the war.

Captain John Q. Marr, commander of the Warrenton Rifles, heard the commotion and quickly got his men up and formed into battle lines in a nearby clover field.  A few of the retreating Confederate cavalrymen ran upon them in the dark and were fired on.  One was wounded; the first case of friendly fire in the war.

Marr got out the sight of his men and disappeared, leaving the unit leaderless.  A 64-year-old civilian took command.  He was William "Extra Billy" Smith, a former Virginia governor and a resident of Warrenton.  He had helped recruit the company and knew many of the men, but had no military training or experience.  After the battle was over, Marr was found dead in the clover field, the first Confederate fatality of the war.   Smith found that he enjoyed the experience of commanding men in battle and asked for a commission.  He would become one of the oldest Confederate generals in the Civil War.

Ewell, wounded shoulder and all, took charge of the scene and moved the Warrenton Rifles into a better defensive position.  Some civilians in the town grabbed what weapons they had and joined them.  Three times the U.S. Cavalry unit tried to ride out of town past the Warrenton Rifles; three times they were driven back.  They finally left the village via a different route.

Confederate casualties:  1 dead (Captain Marr), two wounded, five missing (all captured)
Union casualties:  1 dead (a Private Saintclair), and four wounded, including Lieutenant Tompkins.  They reported one man missing, but the Confederates took three prisoners.  The Union also lost nine horses killed; four were wounded.