Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Attack on Joseph Johnston

There were several movements across the Western Theater in conjunction with Sherman's advance on Meridian, Mississippi in February, 1864. One of these was in Dalton, Georgia, where George Thomas advanced against the lines of Joseph Johnston to see if his position on Rocky Face Ridge was weakened by sending off reinforcements to resist Sherman. From February 22-27 the Federals probed the Confederate positions, but after some heavy skirmishing they found no weaknesses. The Yankees lost about 300 men, the Confederates, 150. Johnston had chosen his position well.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Pomeroy Circular

One issue that loomed large in the mind of Northern politicians in 1864 was the presidential election that would be held later that year. It would be the test of whether people wanted to continue to follow the policies pursued by President Abraham Lincoln the previous four years. But there were some in the Republican party that did not even want Lincoln to get a chance at reelection. 150 years ago today a document called the Pomeroy Circular was published. It was written by Samuel Pomeroy, a Republican senator from Kansas. In this document titled, “The Next Presidential Election,” Pomeroy proposed a new Republican candidate to replace Lincoln – Salmon P. Chase. Chase was the Secretary of the Treasury. Chase was aware of the plans of men like Pomeroy and would have welcomed the opportunity to become President, but he also did not want to publicly come out against Lincoln unless he was sure the people would back him. This document was sent to many Republicans, to help build support for Chase.

Unsurprisingly, it was not long before it fell into Lincoln's hands and was published in the newspapers. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, predicted that “it will be more dangerous in its recoil than its projectile,” meaning that it would do more damage to Chase than to Lincoln, at whom it was aimed. Chase wrote to Lincoln that he was not involved in writing the document, and submitted his resignation, which Lincoln refused. In the long run, Welles proved to be right. The people did not rally behind the idea of Chase for president, and even the Republicans of his own state, Ohio, responded by endorsing Lincoln for president in 1864.

Battle of Olustee

Florida had the smallest population of any state in the Confederacy, and it probably saw the least combat during the war. Tallahassee was the only state capitol east of the Mississippi not captured by the end of the Civil War. But in February, 1864 a Union expedition was sent to Florida under the command of Brigadier General Truman Seymour. His mission was to establish a foothold on Florida soil, cut Confederate supply lines, and recruit freed slaves for the Union army. The Confederates correctly guessed his plans, and reinforcements arrived to bolster the army under Joseph Finnegan.

Map of the battle
After several small raids Seymour decided, without orders, to make a push deep into Florida to capture Tallahassee. On the afternoon of February 20, 150 years ago today, Seymour's 5,500 men met Confederate resistance at Olustee Station, about halfway across the state. He thought they were the ineffective Florida militia, but they turned out to be Finegan's 5,000 men. The battle grew larger and larger in the pine forest, the Federals trying to break through the advancing Confederate line, which was being strengthened as reinforcements came up. Seymour committed his men piecemeal, and they did not have the strength to drive back the rebels. Finally, with no Union reserves left, the line broke under the Confederate pressure. Seymour began his retreat back to to Jacksonville. The southerners tried to strike the Union rear, but they were driven off by the rearguard of United States Colored Troops. The Federals lost 203 killed, 1,152 wounded and 506 captured; the Confederates lost 92 killed, 847 wounded and 6 missing.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Video on the H. L. Hunley

The H. L. Hunley Sinks the Housatonic

The Hunley
During the Civil War the civilians suffered hardships, and many came from the blockade of their coast by the Union navy. They could not export their cotton to the world, and could not import many things they needed from the outside. There were several people in the Confederacy who tried to invent new weapons to break this blockade, and the work of several of these men produced the H. L. Hunley, the world's first successful combat submarine.

James McClintock, one of the boat's designers
The road to a successfully attack on a Union ship was long and costly. The Fish Boat, as the Hunley was originally was called, was the third submarine built by Horace Hunley, James McClintock and Baxter Watson. Their previous failures had helped refine the design. She had a crew of eight one steered and the other seven worked at a crank which turned a propeller. More problems were encountered in Charleston - the boat sunk twice and many of the crew were drowned, including Hunley.

Plan of the Hunley
The Hunley was recovered, and George Dixon, a member of the crew who happened to be absent when she sunk, was appointed her commander. After many days of waiting, they went out on the night of February 17, 1864. They had selected as their target the USS Housatonic, a 12 gun wooden steamer. It was five miles off the coast, and it took the crew of the Hunley much effort to get there. At around 8:45 pm they approached the Housatonic, and the officer on watch sighted what looked like a ripple in the water 100 yards out. But looking again he saw an object moving very fast toward the ship. The ship went into an uproar, and they tried to move forward, while the crew fired at the strange object with anything they could lay their hands on. The Hunley dove and attached its torpedo in an area that happened to be just near the magazine. Seconds later there was a huge explosion, throwing smoke, water, and debris high into the air. A huge hole was ripped in the side of the Housatonic. It sunk in less than five minutes, and the survivors were picked up by boats from other ships. Five men had been killed, and the rest survived. The Housatonic was the first ship in military history to be sunk by a submarine. But the Hunley never returned to port. Not long after the attack a light was seen by the men watching on shore, a prearranged signal for success, but she never returned.

USS Housatonic
The Hunley's disappearance was one of the most puzzling mysteries of the Civil War. After many years of speculation, she was finally located in the late 20th century lying under 3 feet of mud, and in 2000 the wreck was brought to the surface, and investigated by archaeologists. Inside were found the bones of the crew and many artifacts they carried with them. The ongoing work on the Hunley has answered some questions regarding the boat's fate. None of the men had left the ship. They were 1000 feet away from the wreck of the Housatonic. There was no structural damage from the explosion.

The Hunley underwater

But many questions still remain. Why did they sink? Did they intentionally dive to wait for the incoming tide and for some reason not surface? Or did the Hunley sink immediately and the wreck gradually move the 1000 feet? Whatever the Hunley's fate, it was unique. Safe and usable submarines were far in the future, and the next successful military use occurred in 1914, during World War I. With the Hunley's sinking, the war was almost over for Charleston. New weapons had been developed and used successfully, but none were powerful enough to break the blockade and turn the war around.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Davis Suspends Habeas Corpus

One of the most common complaints of the people on either side of the Civil War was that the right to a writ of habeas corpus was suspended. Habeas corpus means in Latin, “you have the body.” It is used to prevent the government from illegally holding prisoners without having evidence to bring charges against them. The Constitutions of both the United States and Confederate States guaranteed the writ of habeas corpus, but allowed it to be suspended when necessary for the public safety. The Confederate Congress gave President Jefferson Davis that power several times during the Civil War, including 150 years ago today, on February 15, 1864. An act was passed suspending the writ in a list of enumerated cases, including treason, conspiracies to overthrow the government, and spying. This is in contrast to Abraham Lincoln, who first revoked the writ, and then had his actions approved by Congress.

Confederate Capitol
Davis met some opposition in these measures, most notably from Alexander Stephens, his vice-president. Stephens denounced Davis as a tyrant and returned home to Georgia, virtually abandoning his office. He gave a speech on the issue on March 16, 1864 to the Georgia Legislature. “In my judgment," he said, "this act is not only unwise, impolitic and unconstitutional, but exceedingly dangerous to public liberty." He believed that the Congress and President could suspend habeas corpus, but they were still restrained by another clause which forbid the removal of "of liberty, without due process of law."

Friday, February 14, 2014

Capture of Meridian

After capturing Vicksburg in 1863, the next campaign that William T. Sherman's men took part in was the Meridian campaign in early 1864. Meridian was an important railway hub and Confederate military center. It was decided that Sherman would push out to capture it, leaving a swath of destruction in his wake. He set out on February 3, 1864 with 20,000 men. When he arrived at Meridian he planned to combine with a force of 7,000 cavalry under William Smith coming down from Tennessee. Jefferson Davis reinforced Leonidas Polk, the commander in the area, but Polk decided not to attack, and fell back before Sherman. The Federals did not encounter serious resistance in their advance, and captured Meridian on February 14, 1864. There Sherman waited for Smith to arrive.

However, Smith would not be coming. The Confederate resistance was led by Nathan Bedford Forrest, and this capable commander forced Smith to turn back. On February 22 he met Forrest in the Battle of Okolona. The Confederate troopers overran the Union barricades and drove them back in a more than ten mile long running battle. The rebel pursuit was eventually halted for lack of ammunition.

Sherman had already given up on Smith, and had left Meridian on February 20. He gave up his hopes of further advance into Alabama, and ordered his troops to wipe Meridian off the map. The Federals destroyed 115 miles of railroad, 61 bridges, more than a mile of trestles and many engines and cars. Sherman reported to Washington: “For five days 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction, with axes, crowbars, sledges, clawbars, and with fire.... Meridian with its depots, store-houses, arsenal, hospitals, offices, hotels, and cantonments no longer exists.” This was but a prelude to the destruction wrought in Sherman's famous March to the Sea.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Escape from Libby Prison

Libby Prison
There were many thousands of prisoners captured by both sides in the Civil War. Although many were patrolled or exchanged, many prisons were still needed to hold them. One of the south's famous prisons was Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia. Before the war Luther Libby owned a warehouse for ship equipment that took up an entire block in the Confederate capitol. When the government needed a prison for Federal officers they used that building, and the old name stuck. The basement was used for storage and cooking, the first floor was the quarters for the guard, and the second and third held the prisoners. However, the kitchen had to be abandoned because of a large number of rats, and the room won the name “Rat Hell.”

Although most of the prisoners avoided “Rat Hell,” three of the Union officers saw it as an opportunity to escape. They found a way to secretly access it by climbing down a chimney in the wall. This alone took fifteen days to accomplish, as they only had pocketknives to remove the bricks. With their plans in place, the prisoners started digging. But before long they hit a snag. They found that the building was built on large timbers. After a tremendous amount of work they were able to saw through those with their pocketknives, but then the tunnel began to fill with water and it had to be abandoned. They tried at another spot to hit a sewer through which they could climb to safety. But when they caused a furnace to collapse they halted that attempt to avoid being detected. It was then decided to go out through the sewer that led out of the kitchen, but days of work were necessary to widen that passage so men could fit through. All was believed to be ready for an escape on the night of January 26th, but the last bit of work took longer than expected, and the tunnel began to fill with water.

Map of the prison and tunnel
With this third failure, another group took over the project and began work on a new tunnel starting from the cellar. The first day of work, when they had to break through the brick wall with an old ax, happened to be the same day the Confederates were installing grates on the windows. This, combined with plenty of stomping by the other prisoners, covered the sound of the work. They then began working on digging the tunnel with a pen knife. The work was done in shifts. Two men went down at night and dug, hiding there during the day until they were relieved the next night. The dirt was packed and hid under a pile of straw in the cellar. The longer the tunnel grew, the more workers were needed, until there were fourteen men handing the dirt out to the opening, using a spittoon with a rope attached. The working conditions were very bad. As one of the diggers wrote:

[I]t was impossible to breathe the air of the tunnel for many minutes together; the miner, however, would dig as long as his strength would allow, or till his candle was extinguished by the foul air; he would then make his way out, and another would take his place – a place narrow, dark and damp, and more like a grave than any place can be short of a man's last home.
The work would have never been done in normal circumstances, but they were driven on by the hope of escaping from Libby Prison. Another prisoner wrote, “No tongue can tell...how the poor fellow[s] passed among the squealing rats,—enduring the sickening air, the deathly chill, the horrible interminable darkness.”

They work had to stop after several prisoners were able to slip pass the guards. Security was heightened, and the guards began to do roll call. At one rollcall when the prisoners were collected, two were missing, as they were down in the cellar. They were able to talk their way out by saying they had just been missed by the officers doing rollcall. But another time one officer was again in the tunnel during rollcall. The guards decided that he escaped, and the prisoners decided he would have to remain in hiding in the cellar to avoid giving away the plan.

Diagram of the tunnel
After 17 days of digging, it was decided that the tunnel was long enough to reach a tobacco shed, about 50 feet away. But when they broke into the air that night, it was found that they had missed the shed and were within sight of the sentries. Thankfully they did not see the hole before it was closed up. The tunnel was extended to its final length of 57 feet, right beneath the shed. The escape was made on February 9th, 150 years ago today.

The escape was very successful. 109 prisoners made their way out of the tunnel and walked out of the prison gates without attracting the attention of the sentries. The guards believed that escape was nearly impossible, so they were not particularly careful in keeping watch. When morning came the tunnel was closed and the remaining prisoners tried to hide the large number of missing men. Inevitably the escape was discovered, and pursuit was made. Many of the officers had fought in the area before being captured, so they were familiar with the terrain. 59 of the escapees were able to reach the Union lines, 48 were caught by the Confederates, and two drowned in the James River.

More of this fascinating story can be found in Four Months in Libby, and the Campaign Against Atlanta by Captain L. N. Johnston.