Monday, March 2, 2015

Battle of Waynesboro

In February, 1865, Union Major General Philip Sheridan began moving up Shenadoah Valley towards Staunton, Virginia. Opposing him were the Confederate troops under Jubal Early, who had had badly defeated the year before at the Battle of Cedar Creek. 150 years ago today Sheridan's lead division of cavalry, 2,500 men under Brig. Gen. George Custer, approached Early just outside Waynesboro. The Confederates had a little more than 1,000 men behind earthworks which covered their entire front. Custer sent his first brigade around the Confederates left flank, while his second made a diversion in the front.

The Federals horse artillery came into action at around 3:30 pm, and several minutes later the rebels were shocked by the flank attack. They were thrown into a panic, and fled after a feeble resistance. Jedediah Hotchkiss, a Confederate staff officer, called it “one of the most terrible panics and stampedes I have ever seen. There was a perfect rout along the road up the mountain, and the enemy ... dashed rapidly forward into the swarm of flying men, wagons, &c....” Many Confederates were captured and the rest were widely scattered. The Army of the Valley no longer existed as an organized force, and Early himself escaped with only a handful of staff. He returned to Lee at Richmond having lost an entire corps of the army since he had left the year before. Although Lee valued Early's skills as a general, he had no choice but to remove him from command. It says much to the character of both men, that after the war Jubal Early was one of Lee's staunchest defenders, even though he had removed him from command.

Early later in life

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fall of Columbia

Sherman and his staff
Upon the completion of Sherman's march to the sea, Ulysses Grant planned to embark that Union army on ships and take them from Georgia up to Virginia, to deal with the army of Robert E. Lee, the last major Confederate force. But Sherman had a different idea. He got Grant's approval of a plan to march to Virginia overland through North and South Carolina and destroying along the way anything of use to the Confederacy, like he had done to Georgia. In January Sherman set out with over 60,000 men. There were few Confederates to resist him – the remnants of the Army of the Tennessee were down below 10,000 men.

The first major target on Sherman's path was Columbia, the capitol of South Carolina. This was a particularly important goal for the Federals, as South Carolina had been the first state to secede from the Union. In their path were around 1,200 Confederates under Lafayette McLaws. His men were guarding the crossing of the Salkehatchie River, but Sherman's men just built a bridge and outflanked the rebel force.

Columbia burning
On February 17, Columbia surrendered to Sherman's advancing men, and the Confederate cavalry abandoned the city. That night chaos broke out among the freed slaves and Union soldiers and freed prisoners, fueled with plentiful supplies of alcohol. A hard wind was blowing, and when fires broke out much of the city was destroyed. It is unlikely that these were lit under orders of the Federal high command, but Sherman certainly was not sorry it happened. The next day the Union troops destroyed anything left in the city of military value.

Ruins of Columbia

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Hampton Roads Peace Conference

Francis Blair
As the bloody Civil War raged on into 1865, nearly everyone on both sides longed for peace. There were some who believed that peace could be reached through negotiation, without one side winning a complete victory. One of these was Fancis Preston Blair, a northern politician and journalist who had close personal relations with many in the Confederate government. With Lincoln's permission, he traveled to Richmond in January, 1865 to propose a peace conference. Jefferson Davis was interested, if only to harden the Confederacy's resolve by showing that a negotiated peace was not possible. However, a major issue soon surface. Davis wrote to Lincoln that he was ready to receive a c omission “with a view to secure peace to the two countries.” Lincoln told Blair that he would receive any agent that Jefferson Davis “may informally send to me with a view to securing peace to the people of our one common country.” For Davis, the Confederacy's independence was non-negotiable, but Lincoln would only consider a proposal that resulted in a unified country.

Alexander Stephens
Blair, with help from Grant, was able to smooth over this difference, and a Peace Conference met. It was held on February 3rd, 150 years today, on the Union steamer River Queen off Fort Monroe, Virginia. Representing the Union was Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. From the Confederacy was vice-president Andrew Stephens, who had broken with Davis and pushed for a speedy peace, Senator Robert Hunter of Virginia and John Campbell, former US Supreme Court Justice and Confederate Assistant Secretary of War.

John Campbell
Stephens opened the meeting by discussing the French invasion of Mexico. One of Blair's suggestions was the country could be reunified if the Civil War was halted with an armistice, and north and south united in sending an expedition to repel Napoleon III's invasion of Mexico. Lincoln, however, quickly cut him off, and turned to the question of sovereignty. Would there be one country or two? It was instantly apparent that the conference was useless. As John Campbell wrote, “We learned in five minutes that [Blair's] assurances to Mr. Davis were a delusion, and that union was the condition of peace.” Neither side would yield upon this crucial point.

The conference continued some time longer, with a discussion of slavery, a proposal from Lincoln to compensate to the south for their slaves, and whether if the southern states immediately surrendered they could reject the 13th Amendment. The one result of the convention was that Lincoln promised to recommend that Grant reopen prisoner exchanges.

The River Queen
The main product of the meeting was propaganda material for both sides. Jefferson Davis could tell the South that he had tried his best to arrange a peace with the North, but they only terms they offered was absolute surrender. The Confederacy's only hope was to fight to the end. Abraham Lincoln could say that the south still remained unwilling to compromise on their independence, and the Yankee troops needed to fight the war to the finishing, reaping the complete fruits of victory with the abolition of slavery.

Lincoln on the River Queen several weeks later

Saturday, January 31, 2015

13th Amendment Passed

When Abraham Lincoln declared the southern slaves free with his Emancipation Proclamation, he did it as a war measure. The Constitution does not give the Federal government the authority to regulate or prohibit slavery, but Lincoln's argument was that he could do it, because it had to be done to win the war. This was shaky legal ground, and it was also unclear what would happen when the war ended. Since emancipation was done as a war measure, if there was no war, would they go back to being slaves?

The United States Congress determined to address this issue, and various bills were debated to determine what should be done. Several different Constitution Amendments were suggested to prohibit slavery. Eventually in early 1864 the Senate Judiciary Committee worked to merge multiple versions into one amendment. The committee introduced it to the Senate on February 10th, and it was passed with a vote of 38 to 6 on April 8, 1864. Next the amendment would have to pass the House, and there it encountered some trouble. In June the amendment failed to pass, with not enough Democrats supporting the measure to reach the two-thirds majority required by the Constitution.

Garrett Davis
Since the southern states were not participating, no one was really arguing in favor of slavery. The Democrats were simply arguing that it would violate the principles of state's rights to give the Federal government control over slavery, which was part of the internal government of the states. Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky argued that the proposed amendment:
strikes at one of the most essential principles of our commingled system of national and of State governments. ... The absorption of the sovereignty ... to the general Government ... would be revolutionary and destructive of our system....1
John Hale
The Republicans argued that slavery was evil, and that it stood against the principles under which the United States had been founded. They believed that the time had come to rid the nation of an evil and unchristian blot on its record. John Hale of New Hampshire said,
We have had upon the pages of our public history, our public documents, and our public records some of the sublimest truths that every fell from human lips; and there never has been in the history of the world a more striking contrast than we have presented to heaven and earth between the grandeur and sublimity of our professions and the degradation and infamy of our practice.2
After many debates, the House did not have the votes to pass the amendment. Abraham Lincoln supported it, but not publicly, as he did not want to hurt his chances in the November 1864 election. After he was safely reelected, he turned his attention to getting the amendment passed as quickly as possible. Republican politicians like Secretary of State William Seward were willing to use any means necessary to win over votes. Government jobs or even direct bribes were offered to Democrats to try to convince them to change their position. Lincoln himself worked to convince representatives to support the amendment.

The 13th Amendment, with Lincoln's signature
The final vote was held on January 31st, 150 years ago today. Neither side was sure how the vote would go. When the tally was made, the amendment passed 119-56, just over the two-thirds requirement. Sixteen Democrats joined all of the Republicans to pass it. The House and galleries broke out into celebrations when the amendment was passed. Although he had no formal role in the process, Abraham Lincoln added his signature to the joint resolution of Congress.

Congress passes the amendment
This was only the first step of the amendment process. The 13th Amendment still had to be ratified by three quarters of the states. Back in 1861 Congress had passed the Corwin Amendment, which would have guaranteed the protection of slavery to try to prevent the southern states from leaving the Union, but it was not ratified by enough states. The 13th Amendment was quickly ratified by every state remaining in the Union except for Delaware and Kentucky. Under the northern view the southern states were still in the Union, just in a state of rebellion, so they were necessary to reach the three quarters required. Reconstruction governments in Virginia and Louisiana ratified it. In the process of reconstruction the other southern states were told that to be readmitted to the Union they had to pass the amendment. Enough did so by the end of 1865 that Seward certified the amendment on December 18.

Blue: Ratified amendment
Green: Ratified amendment after it was enacted
Pink: Rejected amendment, later ratified after enactment
The 13th Amendment was a major step in the process of Reconstruction. By it the Federal government legitimized and permanently established the Emancipation Proclamation, ensuring that slavery would be outlawed in the southern states. By the way it was ratified, a precedent was set. The rebellious states would not be immediately readmitted to the Union. Conditions would be put upon the reconciliation, to ensure that the reestablished Union was upon those terms which the North believed necessary.

1. Great Debates in American History, (New York: Current Literature Publishing Company, 1915) vol. 6, p.
2. Ibid, p. 400.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Battle of Fort Fisher

Fort Fisher
After many Union expeditions against the south, there was only one major port still in Confederate hands – Wilmington, North Carolina. In December, 1864 the Federals set out to close it, but first they had to capture Fort Fisher. A Union squadron under Rear Admiral David Porter was sent, along with an army under Benjamin Butler. The navy bombarded the fort on December 23, but it did little damage. Fort Fisher was built out of dirt, which absorbed the shock of the balls much better than masonry forts like Fort Sumter. Two days later Butler's army landed and began preparing to assault, but the entire expedition was called off when news arrived that a division of Confederate reinforcements was coming, and Butler called off the expedition, in direct disobedience to orders.

Grant and Lincoln were upset by Butler's failure. Butler was a Democrat politician. Since Lincoln had just won reelection to the presidency he no longer needed the worry about the repercussions of punishing Butler. Therefore Butler was removed from command. 9,000 Federal troops were sent back to Fort Fisher, this time under the command of Major General Alfred Terry, who had experience in this type of warfare from the siege of Charleston. By this time the garrison of Fort Fisher was 1,900 strong. The 6,400 man strong division under Robert Hoke was stationed just north of the fort. These were all under the command of Major General W. H. C. Whiting. On January 13 the Federal infantry landed between Fort Fisher and Hoke's forces, which did not attempt to stop the landing.

Porter on one of his ships
On January 15, 150 years ago today, the attack on the fort began. Terry and David Porter had developed a plan with good coordination between army and navy. The fight began with Porter's ships bombarding the Confederate works. They successfully silenced most of the Confederate guns. The a force of 2,000 sailors and marines landed it assault the fort's seaward face, while Terry's infantry attack and the land side. The assault of the navy troops was a failure. The plans for the marines to lay down a covering fire were not executed, and all of the Federals tried charging toward the fort's Northeast Bastion. From there the Confederate drove them back with heavy casualties.

Navy sailors attacking the fort
This attack did draw the defender's attention away from the landward side. At 2:00 pm the Union division under Adelbert Ames charged forward. An advance part used axes to cut through the obstacles around the fort, while the rest of the troops followed close behind. Although many soldiers fell, shot by snipers on the wall, the Federals pushed forward and gained the interior of the fort. The fight, however, was still not over. Confederates still continued to resist, and the remaining guns on the seaward side were turned on the wall which had fell into Yankee hands. Whiting himself gathered some Confederate defenders and personally led a counterattack. It was driven back, and Whiting himself badly wounded. He would later die after the battle.

Federals attacking Fort Fisher
The Federal assailants continued to push forward, driving back Confederate resistance. They were ably supported by Porter's ships, which continued to lob shells int o the fort. However, after hours of fighting, they still had not secured the fort. Both sides were behind defensive positions and the fighting raged on after sunset. Colonel William Lamb, the Confederate who was directly responsible for the fort's defenses, gathered what survivors he could to try to make a united counterattack, but he himself fell wounded. During the battle, Whiting had been send messages to department commander Braxton Bragg begging for more troops. Bragg did not believe the fort was in serious trouble, and instead sent Alfred Colquitt to relieve Whiting.

Soon after Colquitt landed at the fort, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. The Federlas were determined to win the fort that night, and the Federals sent a flanking party outside the wall to strike the last pocket of Confederate resistance. This pressure was too much to bear. Colquitt and his staff realized what was happening, and hurried to escape in their rowboats. The rebels in the last traverse raised a white flag to announce the fort's surrender. At 10:00 pm the fort was officially turned over to the Federals.

A cannon in Fort Fisher, whose mussel was shot away during the battle
This fort was one of the most fiercely contested during the entire Civil War. The casualties were high, but the number was increased even further when the fort's magazine exploded the next day, killing and injuring 200 Federal soldiers and Confederate prisoners sleeping on its roof. The losses from this battle were 1,341 Federals and 583 Confederate killed and wounded, with the rest of the garrison falling prisoner. With Fort Fisher in Union hands, Wilmington fell a month later. All of the major sea ports were now Federal hands.

USS Mahopac

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Fall of Savannah

Ruins of Savannah
Upon the conclusion of his march to the sea, when he established contact with the Federal fleet, William Sherman immediately began a siege of Savannah, Georgia. The fleet brought supplies and the siege artillery necessary to capture the city. With his troops in place, he sent a message to the Confederate commander, William Hardee, on December 17th:
I have already received guns that can cast heavy and destructive shot as far as the heart of your city; also, I have for some days held and controlled every avenue by which the people and garrison of Savannah can be supplied, and I am therefore justified in demanding the surrender of the city of Savannah …. I am prepared to grant liberal terms to the inhabitants and garrison; but should I be forced to resort to assault, or the slower and surer process of starvation, I shall then feel justified in resorting to the harshest measures, and shall make little effort to restrain my army—burning to avenge the national wrong which they attach to Savannah and other large cities which have been so prominent in dragging our country into civil war.
Hardee did not take Sherman's offer of terms. Instead he abandoned the city, using an improvised pontoon bridge to cross the Savannah River on December 20th. The next day the mayor surrendered the city to Sherman, who telegraphed the president, “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.” Sherman's gamble, of abandoning his supply lines and heading into Georgia while Hood invaded Tennessee, had paid off. Lincoln was thankful that he had found able generals who could fight and defeat the Confederate forces. He wrote to Sherman,
Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah. When you were leaving Atlanta for the Atlantic coast, I was anxious, if not fearful; but feeling that you were the better judge, and remembering that 'nothing risked, nothing gained' I did not interfere. Now, the undertaking being a success, the honor is all yours; for I believe none of us went farther than to acquiesce. … But what next? I suppose it will be safer if I leave Gen. Grant and yourself to decide.


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Siege of Nashville – Day 2

Federal entrenchments
On the morning of December 16th, 150 years ago today, the Federal troops outside Nashville prepared to attack John Bell Hood's new position. It was much shorter and stronger than the previous day's, and the flanks were secured to prevent a repetition of the previous day's disaster. However, they did have critical weaknesses. On Shy's Hill, some of the highest ground on the Confederate left, the entrenchments were on the actual crest of the hill rather than the military crest, a little lower. This meant that the attacking Federals would, for a time, be hidden from Confederate shot as they charged up the hill. Thomas's plan from the previous day remained unchanged – to feint on the right and then push hard on the rebel left.

Unlike the previous day, the diversionary attack did convince Hood to shift forces away from the truly threatened point. Four brigades attacked the right around 3 pm. Most were turned back by the heavy Confederate fire, but the 13th United States Colored Troops continued to pressed forward. They charged up to the Confederate parapets before being driven back, losing a flag and 40% of their strength in the process. Cheatham, commanding the corps on the Confederate left, had to stretch his line even thinner to protect the flank and rear from Union cavalry incursions.

With this golden opportunity on the Confederate right, the Federals failed to move. John Schofield was ordered to make the attack with his corps, but he believed he was outnumbered and requested reinforcements. When these arrived, he still did nothing. With sunset not far distant, Brigadier General John McArthur decided to take matters into his own hands. He announced to his commanders that his division would attack in five minutes unless he received orders to the contrary. No orders arrived, and so his three brigades moved out toward the Confederate left on Shy's Hill. His attack was very successful. The misplacement of the entrenchments meant that the hill could be captured without much difficultly, and another brigade was so close on the heels of the Confederate skirmishers that they entered the rebel works with them. One Federal officers wrote:
It was more like a scene in a spectacular drama than a real incident in war. The hillside in front, still green, dotted with boys in blue swarming up the slope; the wavering flags; the smoke slowly rising through the leafless tree-tops and drifting across the valleys; the wonderful outburst of musketry; the ecstatic cheers; the multitude racing for life down in the valley below …. As soon as the other divisions farther to the left saw and heard the doings on their right, they did not wait for orders. Everywhere, by a common impulse, they charged the works in front, and carried them in a twinkling.

With the left crushed, much of Hood's army fell apart. Sam Watkins of the 1st Tennessee wrote:
Such a scene I never saw. The army was panic-stricken. The woods everywhere were full of running soldiers. Our officers were crying, 'Halt! Halt!' and trying to rally and re-form their broken ranks. The Federals would dash their cavalry in amongst us, and ever their cannon joined in the charge. … Wagon trains, cannon, artillery, cavalry, and infantry were all blended in inextricable confusion.
Through the night of December 16th the Confederates retreated, with part of Lee's corps still intact and serving as rearguard and repelling strikes by Union cavalry. Over the next few days the rebels pushed forward into Alabama. The Union infantry could make little pursuit due to a missing pontoon train, and two newly arrived divisions of Confederate cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest handled the attacks of the Federal troopers.

USCT monument at the Nashville Cemetery. Source
In this battle the Federals lost around 387 killed, 2,562 wounded, and 112 missing. The Confederate casualties are harder to pin down, but they probably lost around 2,500 killed and wounded and more than 4,500 prisoners. This battle was the deathnell of Hood's Army of the Tennessee. They had entered Tennessee with 38,000 men. When they returned to the safety of Alabama they had about 15,000 men. Much of the blame for this debacle was due to John Bell Hood, who had wasted his army in bloody frontal attacks, and had continued to press on in the invasion against vastly superior Federal forces. He resigned his command in January, and the shattered remnants of his command were integrated into other forces.