Saturday, April 19, 2014

Attack of the CSS Albemarle

CSS Albemarle
Throughout the war the United States Navy was vastly superior to the ships that the Confederacy was able to scrape together, but that did not stop the Southerners from trying to build their navy. They often found very innovative ways to do it. The ironclad ram CSS Albemarle was begun in a cornfield near the Roanoke River in January, 1863. The Union troops heard of the rebel boat being prepared, but they did not have enough troops to send an expedition to destroy her. By April 1864, the CSS Albemarle was launched under the command of Captain James Cooke and ready to head down river to engage the Union fleet off Plymouth, North Carolina.

She sailed down river to engage the Federal ships 150 years ago today – April 19, 1864. Mooring three miles above the town, the pilot went ahead and discovered that the water was high enough that the Union obstructions in the river were 10 feet under. As the Confederate warship set out, she came under fire from Federal batteries along the shore, but their fire just bounced off the Albemarle's iron sides.
After Safely passing these obstacles, the rebels encountered the Union ships, two paddle wheel steamers tied together, the USS Miami and Southfield. The Union officers tried to use the ships' connection to their advantage by trapping the ironclad between them. Captain Cooke on the Albemarle turned hard to starboard, and barely missing the shore, swung around and rammed the Southfield. Although he dealt the Yankee steamer a fatal blow, the Confederate ram was hopelessly tangled in the hull of her victim. Grasping the opportunity, the Miami fired a shell point blank into the trapped Albemarle. However, the ironclad's armor held firm, and the shell rebounded back into the Union vessel. There it exploded and killed her commander, Captain Charles Fusser. The crew of the Miami tried to board the ram, but the rebels drove them back with a heavy musketry fire. Foiled in their attempts to sink or capture the ram, the Yankees steered the USS Miami clear of the CSS Albemarle and headed into Albemarle Sound, while the Albemarle was released as the Southfield rolled and sank. With the Federal vessels driven off, Confederate infantry attacked the town and captured it, with the support of the Albemarle's guns.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Campaigning in Arkansas

Plan for the Red River Campaign
The state of Arkansas did not see much fighting during the Civil War, compared to states like Virginia and Tennessee, but one battle was fought there 150 years ago today. The Union plan for the Red River campaign was for two forces to converge on Shreveport, Louisiana. One army under Nathaniel Banks coming up from New Orleans, and another under Richard Steele coming down from Arkansas.

Steele began his movement from Little Rock on March 23, 1864 with about 8,500 men under his command. The march was not easy. The Federals were moving through barren country and had to ward off attacks from Confederate cavalry. Nonetheless they pressed forward, and reached Camden, Arkansas on April 15. He found no supplies there, and a few days later received the news that the campaign was in shambles. Banks had been defeated at Mansfield and was in retreat, and Confederate forces under Kirby Smith were moving to cut off Steele's retreat.

The Federals were running low on supplies, so Steele sent out 1,200 men under Colonel James Williams to forage the area for supplies. They had completed their mission, and were returning with 200 wagons full of food, when Confederates attacked. Two Confederate divisions under John Marmaduke and Samuel Maxey struck the Federal column in the flank and rear at Poison Spring. The Federal party was driven into a swamp, loosing 300 men and the supplies they had gathered. This was just the beginning of the disaster which awaited Steele's expedition.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Prisoner Exchanges Suspended

For nearly two years prisoner exchanges were maintained between the Union and Confederate armies. The arrangement benefited both sides. They received men back to go into their armies, and they did not have to guard or feed large numbers of prisoners. However 150 years ago today this arrangement was ended. U. S. Grant ordered that exchanges cease until the Confederates agreed to acknowledge the paroles given to the troops captured at Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and to not treat the colored prisoners differently. Many in the Confederacy wished to enslave captured black soldiers instead of treating them as prisoners of war.

Although there were reasons that motivated the halting of the prisoner exchanges at this particular time, it was part of Grant's larger strategy to wear down the power of the Confederacy. He wrote in August, 1864:
We ought not to make a single exchange nor release a prisoner on any pretext whatever until the war closes. We have got to fight until the military power of the South is exhausted, and if we release or exchange prisoners captured it simply becomes a war of extermination.
This policy brought great sufferings on the prisoners of both sides, as their captors had little incentive to provide them with sufficient food, lodging or clothing. In the last few months of the war the prisoners exchanges were resumed.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Battle of Fort Pillow

Nathan Bedford Forrest fought in many raids and battles in the Civil War, but his most controversial by far was his attack on Fort Pillow 150 years ago today. By this point he was nearly a month into a raid on the Union positions in Tennessee and Kentucky. He decided to attack Fort Pillow to capture the supplies that the fort held. Fort Pillow was built by Confederate general Gideon Pillow in 1862, but it was abandoned and garrisoned by the Federals. It was built on a bluff on the Mississppi River, its three walls protected by six cannon. When Forrest attacked the garrison was 500-600 men, half white and half black. The Confederates were at least three times as numerous.

Forrest arrived at the fort, which was already surrounded by Confederate troopers, at 10:00 on April 12. He deployed sharpshooters on hills that overlooked the fort, and they opened up a scattered fire. It was not long before they scored a hit – Major Lionel Booth, the forts commander, was killed. Confederates also occupied the barracks which the Federals had failed to destroy, putting them only 150 yards from the fort's parapet.

At 3:30, with his men in position to attack, Forrest sent the Union commander this ominous note:
The conduct of the officers and men garrisoning Fort Pillow has been such as to entitle them to being treated a prisoners of war. I demand the unconditional surrender of the entire garrison, promising that you shall be treated as prisoners of war. My men have just received a fresh supply of ammunition, and from their present position can easily assault and capture the fort. Should my demand be refused, I cannot be responsible for the fate of your command.
Major William Bradford, who had assumed command after Booth's death, asked for one hour to consider the situation, Forrest would only give him 20 minutes. Bradford send a final message, “We will not surrender.” A bugle sounded the charge, and the Confederates surged toward the walls.

Under covering fire from the sharpshooters, the rebels rushed toward the fort and into the ditch. The Federals were kept down by the sharpshooters' bullets, and were not able to stop the assailants. The Confederates climbed on each others shoulders, making their way on top of the 6 – 8 foot wall. As they reached the top of the embankment, their fired their weapons into the crowd of bluecoats below. A Union gunboat, USS New Era was on the river, and the Federals fell back in disorder, hoping to get picked up by the ship. They were unable to reach the ship, which did not even aid them with its fire. The gun ports remained sealed for fear of the southern sharpshooters.

When the Confederates had burst into the fort, the Federals had fled towards the gunboat without trying to surrender or hauling down the flag. Some still carried their weapons, and fired back at the attackers. Others threw down their arms and tried to surrender. The rebels, with adrenaline high after their dangerous advance, continued to kill indiscriminately. One Union naval officer on the scene wrote in his report:
All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to out troops.
There is no doubt that a massacre of some kind did take place. The Federals had about 350 killed, 60 wounded and 164 captured. The Confederates lost only 14 killed and 86 wounded. It is also clear that the colored troops were especially targeted. Only 20% of the black troops survived the battle, as opposed to 60% of the white Federals. Confederates defended their actions by arguing that the Federals had been warned of the consequences of refusing to surrender, the fort had never been officially surrendered, and the officers attempted to stay the slaughter.

Whether or not the Confederates could justify the slaughter in any way, it was seen as a horrible massacre by the people of the north. Lincoln and his cabinet considered retaliation, but none was ever made. As the news spread through the country the northerners saw their foes as less civilized. They began to see the southern troops as murders, would would massacre the colored troops in cold blood. This perception would have an impact in future battles, and on reconstruction after the war.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Battle of Pleasant Hill

Battle of Pleasant Hill
After the Battle of Mansfield on April 8th, the Federals fell back during the night to a place called Pleasant Hill. Both the Union and Confederate had new reinforcements that had not fought on the previous day. On the morning of April 9th, 150 years ago today, the Confederates advanced, and began skirmishing with the Federal troops around noon.

Map of the battlefield
At 5 pm the main Confederate attack finally came, units attacking all along the Federal line. On the Union right the Confederate attack from Walker's and Mouton's divisions made little progress. The divisions of Churchill and Parson, attacking the Union center and left, had more success. They drove back the Federal lines, but there was no great panic like that of the previous day. The Federals pushed back and began regaining their ground. For two hours this hard fighting continued. As one soldier wrote, “The mingled roar of artillery and musketry; the shouts of the exultant, as volley after volley was fired with fearful effect; the groans of the wounded; the sulphurous smoke, and the day fading into darkness, all tended to heighten the effect of the thrilling scene.” Finally the charging Federals were able to drive back the tired Southerners, and capture five of their guns, several of which the Union had lost the previous day.
The losses from the battle were heavy from both sides. 1,600 Confederates were killed, wounded or captured. The Federals lost 152 killed, 859 wounded and 495 captured. Richard Taylor had hoped that he could follow up on his success of the previous day, but his plan had fallen apart. He had planned to flank the enemy, but Churchill, the general entrusted with the attack, had not moved far enough to reach the Union flank. Although this battle was a tactical victory for Nathaniel Banks, it was a strategic defeat. He ordered his army to fall back, and abandoned the rest of his plans for the campaign.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Battle of Mansfield

Map of the Red River Campaign
In the spring of 1864 the Union Army began a campaign up the Red River in Western Louisiana. An army under Nathaniel Banks, supported by a flotilla of gunboats, headed upriver towards Shreveport, LA. The Confederate commander in the area was Richard Taylor. When he received news of Banks' advance, he ordered his troops to concentrate at Mansfield. When Banks drew near the area, he left the immediate support of the gunboats to fight Taylor there.

Battle of Mansfield
At the beginning of the day the Confederates had 9,000 men on one side of a clearing, with more reinforcements on the way. Although the Federal army was much longer, they were still on their way to the battlefield. Both sides waited during the first part of the day, until finally the Confederates struck at 4 pm. The Confederate left was repulsed and many of its commanders killed, but on the right they overlapped the Union position. The Federal line broke and many prisoners fell into Confederate hands. A second line was quickly organized, but it too was overrun by Confederate charges. After pursuing the retreating Yankees for several miles the Confederates encountered a third Federal line, which they were unable to capture before nightfall.

The Union lost 113 killed, 581 wounded and 1,541 captured, along with 20 cannon and many wagons. The losses of the Confederates were not precisely recorded, but they were about 1,000 killed and wounded.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

Riot in Charleston, Illinois

Coles County
While the Federal armies were beginning the spring campaigns of 1864, trouble was brewing on the home front in Coles County, Illinois. The county was a stronghold for the Copperheads, a section of the Democrat Party that opposed Lincoln's policies and wanted an end to the war, even if it meant a division of the Union. On March 28, 1864, Judge Charles Constable was holding court in the town. The previous year he had been arrested for releasing four Union deserters. Although the judge was released, he was still meeting rough treatment at the hands of Union soldiers, who treated him as a traitor. One of the sports of the soldiers was to stop known Democrats, including Judge Constable, and force them to kneel and take an oath of loyalty to the United States.

With the judge in town tensions were high between the Copperheads and Union soldiers home on leave. A Democratic rally was scheduled for the day, with Democrats John Eden, Congressman of the district, scheduled to speak, and Sheriff John O'Hair in attendance. Both soldiers and civilians were drinking heavily, and both had brought guns with them, knowing that trouble was possible.

The courthouse, around which fighting took place
The conflict broke out when Private Oliver Sallee of the 54th Illinois approached Nelson Wells and asked him if there were any Copperheads in the town. Wells replied that he was one. It is here that the accounts differ. Democrats said that Sellee at this moment drew his pistol, and shot at Wells. Republicans said that Sallee laid his hand on Wells shoulder, so he shot first. Either way shots broke out, and Sallee was hit. Partially rising, he killed Wells with a bullet from his gun. General fighting quickly broke out.

There were about sixteen Union soldiers in the square when the shooting broke out. There were many more Copperheads on hand, and they ran to their wagons to retrieve their weapons. The soldiers got the worst of the quick fight. When the smoke settled six soldiers were killed and four wounded, including the Colonel of the 54th Illinois. One Republican civilian was killed and three wounded. On the Copperhead side there were only two killed and six wounded, including the sheriff, who was nicked by a ball inside the courthouse.

As the fighting stopped, Colonel Mitchell gathered what men he could find and telegraphed for reinforcements. The Copperheads, led by Sheriff O'Hair, quickly left the town. They decided not to return and try to drive out the soldiers, or the mob, as the sheriff called them. Instead the group scattered.

For several days rumors ran wild, some saying that the sheriff was going to attack Charleston with 1,500 men. However, this was the end of the fighting in Charleston, IL. Fifty known Copperheads were rounded up by the military, and after some questioning all but fifteen of them were released. These were denied the right of habeas corpus and sent to prison at Fort Delaware. Lincoln ordered their release seven months later. Two were tried for murder and acquitted, and twelve others were indicted but never arrested or tried.

Unsurprisingly, the riot was interpreted by the press in accordance with their politics. The Republican Plain Dealer of Charleston said:
What the end. of this state of things will be, we can. not tell; but if the government does not now take the matter in hand, we fear that the terribly exasperated soldiery and citizens will. Union men have long been threatened and Union soldiers have been so bitterly cursed, and now brutally butchered, by those from whom better things had been. expected, that forbearance will cease—has ceased—to be a virtue. Loyal men here, and the soldiers at the front, are endeavoring to uphold the laws of the land; but they cannot, and will not, stand unconcernedly by. and see their fellows assassinated for so doing.
On the other side, the New York World wrote, “The troubles in the West are clearly due to an. unhealthy public sentiment among the Republicans, countenancing drunken soldiers in insulting peaceable citizens.” You can read this article for more of the history of this story.