Thursday, June 23, 2011

Construction of the CSS Virginia

When Virginia seceded, the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia was abandoned by federal troops. The buildings and ships were ordered to be destroyed, but one ship sank before being destroyed. The USS Merrimack was a steam frigate that had been built in 1855. Although she had burned to the waterline and sank, the Confederacy was in such a great need of ships they raised her to attempt to reconstruct her.
Burning Merrimack
She was the only large ship with working engines available in the area and it was decided that she would be rebuilt as an ironclad. While ironclads were a new invention, this ship was not the first ironclad as many believe. Several had been built in Europe, and although it was recognized that they would become powerful forces in future wars, they had not seen much combat. Rumors were heard from the North that they were working on an iron covered ship as well, so they set to work on transforming the Merrimack into the CSS Virginia, 150 years ago today. This ship would later prove to the world exactly what ironclads were capable of.
Completed Virginia

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Thaddeus Lowe and the Balloons of the Civil War

In June, 1861, Thaddeus Lowe demonstrated hot air balloons to Lincoln for use in the military. Lowe was from New Hampshire, and was the son of a cobbler. After attending a chemistry lecture he was so interested in the subject  that the professor took him on as an assistant. After the professor retired, Lowe traveled around the country giving his own lectures. He also began making hot air balloons, and by 1860 he began a leading ballon builder in America. He planned to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in a balloon, and so he tried a test flight from Cinncinati to Washington, DC. His plans did not go very well however, he ended up in South Carolina, a few months after they seceded. He was arrested for a time, but finally was allowed to go home.
With the Civil War at hand, Lowe abandoned the idea of crossing the ocea. Instead he proposed to Abraham Lincoln that his ballons be used for aerial reconisance. He was sucessful, and after his performance at the Battle of Bull Run a ballon corps was formed with Lowe at the head.

Mobile Inflation of the Balloons

Friday, June 17, 2011

Battle of Boonville

Another small battle happened today in Missouri as well. General Lloyn, commander of the federal troops there, had set out for Jefferson Sity, the capital, with 1,500 men. The General Sterling Price, commander of the Missouri militia, retreated along with the governor. General Lyon moved up the river with his troops in steamers, to drive them out of Boonville, where they had taken up camp. They advanced on June 17th toward the camp, with skirmishers ready to guard against any attack. Coming upon the Confederate line, he deployed his artillery, and the shells quickly drove them back. The militia conducted an orderly retreat, skirmishing with the Federals as they went. They abandoned their camp, and moved into the Southern part of the state. Lyon captured 60 prissoners, two cannons, and supplies of rifles and equipment.

Skirmish near Vienna

150 years ago today Robert Shenck was ambushed on mission from Washington. McDowell sent him on a reconisance mission with his troops. As they reached Vienna, Virginia, the train that was carrying them was ambushed. Two Confederate cannons fired shot, shell and canister into the train. Shenck ordered his soldiers off the train, formed them into line and attacked the enemy. The engineer of the train uncoupled the cars, and ran off abandoning them to the enemy. They were greatly outnumbered, but the Confederates retreated, believing that more troops were on the way. Shenck was able to escape with just a few casualties, but this skirmish made the Union advance much more cautious the next time.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Harper's Ferry Abandoned

The burned bridge with Harper's Ferry in the background
150 years ago yesterday Joseph E. Johnston of the Confederacy evacuated Harper's Ferry, Virginia, retreating before Robert's Patterson's Army of the Shenandoah. In this theater of the war, there were four main armies. The Union had one army under Gen. McDowell stationed near Washington, and another under Gen. Patterson at the head of the Shenandoah Valley. Their plan was to invade Virginia. Gen. Johnston commanded the Confederate army facing Patterson, and Gen. Beuregard commanded the other army facing McDowell.
The same bridge pillars today

Harper's Ferry was a very strategic point in the Civil War. It was at the junction of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, and it is at the head of the Shenadoah Valley. It changed hands eight times during the Civil War. It was abandoned by the Union troops and occupied by Johnston, and now he was retreating in the face of Patterson's superior forces.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Battle of Big Bethel

When Virginia seceded, there was one fort on there soil that remained in the hands of the American government. Fort Monroe, on Old Point Comfort, near Hampton Roads and New Port News, did not have to fear Confederate attack because it could only be attacked on a narrow causeway, and it was supported by the Union navy. This foothold would be an important point in the attacks on Virginia. The commander of the fort was Major General Benjamin F. Butler. The Confederate commander of the peninsula was Col. John Magruder. Magruder placed his men at Little Bethel Church and Big Bethel Church. Butler decided they needed to be driven back because they harassed his outposts at the fort.

On the night of June 9th, 2,500 Union troops moved to launch a surprise attack on the Confederate forces. Before they reached the Confederate lines, the 7th and 3rd New York began to attack fire at other. By the time it was over, the Confederates were alerted to their presence, and a few dozen men were injured. The Union commander decided not to call off the attack.

Union Troops Attempt to Advance Against Confederate Artillery
But to reach the Confederate line, the Unions would have to cross a bridge and capture entrenchments. On the right they tried to form their lines and charge, but they were quickly broken by the artillery fire from the Confederate lines. On the left, 1,500 troops successfully crossed the creek by a ford to attempted to flank the Confederate line. But the Confederates were ready. As the 1st New York charged forward, believing there was nothing to oppose them, a North Carolina regiment rose from hidden fortifications, and poured in a heavy fire. The commander of the Union regiment jumped to the top of the fence, trying to lead his men forward, but he was shot by the Southerners. After remaining in that position for twenty minutes, the New York troops fell back, seeing they could not capture the position.

The Union attacks having failed, they fell back to Fort Monroe. The 2,500 Union troops suffered 18 killed, 53 wounded, and 5 missing. The 1,200 Confederates suffered only 1 killed and 7 missing. Private Henry Wyatt of the 1st North Carolina Volunteers was the first Confederate killed in combat in the Civil War. From this came the start of North Carolina's boast that they were, "First at Bethel, Farthest at Gettysburg and Chickamauga, and Last at Appomattox."

This battle demonstrated the fact that while surprise attacks could be very effective, if surprise was lost they were no longer useful. It also showed that with fewer soldiers, if they were behind entrenchments, could easily defeat larger forces.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tennesse Officially Secedes

Isham Harris, governor of Tennessee
Today Tennessee ratified its secession from the United States. They had already passed it a few weeks ago, but it was not official until there was a popular vote. The vote was 104,913 to 47,238. While that is over a 2-to-1 majority, it still shows that there were large portions of the state that were pro-Union. East Tennessee was mostly anti-secession, and West Tennessee was strongly pro-secession. The eastern counties attempted to secede from the state, as West Virginia ended up doing, but the state government sent troops to occupy the area. With this official recognition of Tennessee’s secession, they became the last state to join the Confederacy. Tennessee was a site of many of the war's largest battles in the east, and it furnished large numbers of troops for the South, and some for the North as well.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Stephen Douglas Dies

150 years ago today Stephen Douglas, the emanate Northern politician, died. Douglas was from Illinois like Lincoln, and defeated him in a race for the Senate seat after the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. He was the candidate for president for the Northern Democratic party in 1860, but lost to Lincoln. The popular vote was split between four candidates in such a way so that Douglas came second in popular votes, but only carried 1 ½ states in electoral votes. Lincoln actually won the election with only about 40% of the popular vote.

Douglas was called Little Giant, because although he was short, he was very important in politics. He was one of the most important senators in the 1850s, and was responsible for the passage of several important bills. Even though he was defeated by Lincoln, he later encouraged his supporters to support him. But Douglas died of typhoid today at the age of only 48.

If Douglas had defeated Lincoln in the election, history would have taken a different term. The South probably would not have seceded, and if they did, Herschel V. Johnson, a Georgian who would have became president after Douglas's death, probably would have let them. There would have been no Civil War, and America would have been allowed to split in peace.


Battle of Philippi

The town of Philippi
Today, 150 years ago, McClellan’s army from the Department of the Ohio attacked Confederate forces at what today is Philippi, West Virginia. McClellan had ordered his troops to advance into northwest Virginia on May 26th. His goal was to occupy the pro-Union area, and possibly launch a campaign to capture Richmond. The Confederate commander in the area was George A. Porterfield. Porterfield had 800 fresh recruits in Philippi, to oppose McClellan’s 3000 troops.

Colonel Benjamin Kelley, commander of the Union 1st Virginia, led the attack. He led 1,600 men around by a back road to attack the rear of the town. Colonel Ebenezer Durmont would take 1,400 men and march directly at the front of the town. By this plan the Federals hoped to surround and capture or destroy the Confederates.

The Union columns arrived near Philippi before dawn on June 3. The night had been rainy, and the Confederates had heard rumors of the attack. But they believed the attack would not be launched in the weather, and so they decided not to retreat. They even neglected to set pickets to watch for an enemy advance.

Union Artillery
The Confederates were rudely awakened by the sound of Union artillery firing into the town. They fled after firing a few shots, and ran South as fast as they could to escape the Union. Kelley’s column was unable to block their escape because he had taken the wrong road. Kelley was shot as he pursued the fleeing Confederates, but a Union Colonel personally captured the man who had shot him.

The Federals march through the Town
This battle was relatively bloodless: the Federals lost 4 men and the South 26. Interestingly, one of the Confederate casualties was a college student James Hanger. His leg was amputated because of the wound, and when he went home he made an artificial leg. He was then commissioned by the Virginia Legislature to make his “Hanger Limb” for his fellow amputees. He founded what is now the Hanger Orthopedic Group, which remains a market leader in the manufacturing of artificial legs to this day.

This was the first land skirmish or battle of the war, and it caused McClellan to be a national hero. Even though McClellan was not on the spot and did not command the attack personally, he was still given credit for the battle. The battle was greatly exaggerated by the press, and became the “Philippi Races.” Because without him his army won what would later not even be a significant skirmish, McClellan was given the command of all the Northern armies after the battle of Bull Run.

A bridge used by both sides in the battle