Lincoln’s Political Generals

This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series Union General Officers

Abraham Lincoln after his nominationThe history of the American Civil War can be divided in two halves: before Vicksburg and Gettysburg in mid 1863 and after. The two year time before the two important events, the battle of Gettysburg and the Fall of Vicksburg, were disastrous for the Union in most cases. There were some exceptions, usually fighting in which Ulysses S. Grant commanded the Union forces.

At the start of the war Abraham Lincoln, a Republican, made a fateful decision that almost created the permanent division of the country. Quite simply, he put the wrong generals in charge. Concerned that the war would be seen by Northerners as a Republican war he chose to appoint Democrats to positions of power in the Union Army.

Most of the Democrats were politicians and many had never served a day in their lives in the Army. Those that did usually left  the Army at a low rank and returned to civilian life. Meanwhile, the Confederates appointed men who been active in the Army; men like Robert E. Lee, Joseph E. Johnson, Thomas J. Jackson and Jeb Stuart.

Those officers who remained loyal to the Union were often non-entities that suffered defeat after defeat as the better men rose to the top like cream. It was a close-run thing. In the East the Union Army suffered a number of defeats, including twice at Bull Run or Manassas as the Confederate victors called it. They were defeated at Ball’s Bluff and Big Bethel.

They fought the Confederates to a standstill at Antietam but should have swept them from the field. They were surprised a Chancellorsville but at Gettysburg the professional soldiers were able eke out a defensive victory that gave the Army of the Potomac a lift in their morale.

Let’s take a look at some of the political generals. The most prominent was Ben Butler of Massachusetts. Although he sympathized with the South, Butler stated that “I was always a friend of southern rights but an enemy of southern wrongs”.  Butler was appointed as a major-general in the Union Army. His policies regarding slaves as contraband so they could be treated as free men, his administration of occupied New Orleans, his ineffectual leadership in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, and the fiasco of Fort Fisher rank him as one of the most controversial political generals of the war.

Nathaniel Banks was another Bay Stater who Lincoln chose as one of the first major generals of volunteers, appointing him on May 16, 1861. After suffering an inglorious defeat in the Shenandoah at the hands of the newly famous ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Banks replaced Benjamin Butler at New Orleans as commander of the Department of the Gulf, charged with liberating the Mississippi. But he failed to reinforce Grant at Vicksburg, and only took the surrender of Port Hudson after Vicksburg had fallen. He was then put in charge of the Red River campaign, a doomed attempt to occupy eastern Texas. Banks had no faith in this strategy, but the outgoing General-in-Chief, Henry Halleck, is believed to have told Grant that it was Banks’ idea, in order to dodge responsibility for this expensive failure, for which Banks was removed from command.

Franz Sigel was a German immigrant was a graduate of Karlsruhe Military Academy in 1843, and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Baden Army. He left the army in 1847 and became a leader of in the Revolution of 1848. equipped and more experienced Prussian and Württemberg troops. In 1852 he emigrated to the United States and settled in St. Louis. Throughout the summer, President Abraham Lincoln was actively seeking the support of anti-slavery, pro-Unionist immigrants. Sigel, always popular with the German immigrants, was a good candidate to advance this plan. He was promoted to brigadier general on August 7, 1861, to rank from May 17, one of a number of early political generals endorsed by Lincoln.

Sigel had a mixed career with fine performances at the Battle of Pea Ridge but utter defeats at the Battle of New Market. After the battle, Sigel was replaced by Maj. Gen. David Hunter. In July, Sigel fought Lt. Gen.Jubal A. Early at Harpers Ferry, but soon afterward was replaced by Albion P. Howe. Sigel spent the rest of the war without an active command.

John C. Fremont was an American military officer, explorer, and politician who became the first candidate of the anti-slavery Republican Party for the office of President of the United States. During the Mexican American War, Frémont, a major in the U.S. Army, took control of California from the Bear Flag Republic in 1846. Frémont then served as military Governor of California; however, he was court-martialed for mutiny and insubordination. Frémont became one of the first two U.S. senators elected from the new state of California in 1850.

During the Civil War, he was given command of Department of the West by President Abraham Lincoln. Although Frémont had successes during his brief tenure as Commander of the Western Armies, he ran his department autocratically, and made hasty decisions without consulting Washington D.C. or President Lincoln. After Frémont’s emancipation edict that freed slaves in his district, he was relieved of his command by President Lincoln for insubordination.

John Alexander McClernand was an American lawyer and politician, and a Union general in the Civil War. He was a classic case of the politician-in-uniform coming into conflict with career Army officers, graduates of the United States Military Academy. He was a prominent Democratic politician in Illinois and a representative in the U.S. Congress before the war and then served as a subordinate commander under Ulysses S. Grant in the Western Theater, fighting in the battles of Belmont, Fort Donelson, and Shiloh in 1861–62.

A close friend and political ally of Abraham Lincoln, McClernand was given permission to recruit a force to conduct an operation against Vicksburg, Mississippi, which would rival the effort of Grant, his department commander. Grant was able to neutralize McClernand’s independent effort after it conducted an expedition to win the Battle of Arkansas Post, and McClernand became the senior corps commander in Grant’s army for the Vicksburg Campaign in 1863. During the siege of Vicksburg, Grant relieved McClernand of his command for his intemperate and unauthorized communication with the press, finally putting an end to a rivalry that had caused Grant discomfort since the beginning of the war. McClernand left the Army in 1864 and served as a judge and a politician in the postbellum era.

Stephen Augustus Hurlbut was a politician, diplomat, and commander of the U.S. Army of the Gulf in the American Civil War. He was one of the most successful of the political generals of the war. When the Civil War erupted, Hurlbut joined the Union Army and became a brigadier general on May 17, 1861 and a major general on September 17, 1862. He commanded the 4th Division, Army of the Tennessee at the Battle of Shiloh and in the advance towards Corinth and the subsequent siege. He also led a division at the Battle of Hatchie’s Bridge, taking command of the entire Union force after Gen Edward Ord was wounded.

Hurlbut commanded XVI Corps from his headquarters at Memphis. It has been suggested by the historian Bertram Korn, that during his garrison duty at Memphis, Hurlbut issued antisemitic orders confiscating Jewish property and preventing Jews from trading. He led a corps under William T. Sherman in the 1864 Meridian expedition. Hurlbut subsequently commanded the Department of the Gulf, succeeding Nathaniel P. Banks and serving in that capacity for the remainder of the war. Hurlbut was suspected of embezzlement during his term as department commander.

Lewis “Lew” Wallace was an American lawyer, Union general in the Civil War, governor of the New Mexico Territory, politician, diplomat, and author. Among his novels and biographies, Wallace is best known for his historical adventure story, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), a bestselling novel that has been called “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century.”

Wallace’s military career included service in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. He was appointed Indiana’s adjutant general and commanded the 11th Indiana Infantry Regiment. Wallace, who attained the rank of major general, participated in the battles of Fort Donelson, Shiloh and Monocacy. He also served on the military commission for the trials of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, and presided over the military investigation of Henry Wirz, a Confederate commandant of the Andersonville prison camp.

At Monocacy Wallace much smaller force (5,800) was able to delay Jubal Early’s much larger force (14,000) for a full day until Union reinforcements arrived. Early was forced to retreat with his dream of capturing Washington thwarted. When the full extent of the battle became known Wallace became the man of the hour. Grant assessed Wallace’s delaying tactics at Monocacy in his memoirs:

If Early had been but one day earlier, he might have entered the capital before the arrival of the reinforcements I had sent …. General Wallace contributed on this occasion by the defeat of the troops under him, a greater benefit to the cause than often falls to the lot of a commander of an equal force to render by means of a victory.




What came before Fort Sumter

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

What came before Fort SumterFor many the firing on Fort Sumter was the cause of the American Civil War. But before Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 there were over 70 years of historical events that formed the narrative that created the American Civil War. Over the course of the next several posts we’ll examine those events, starting with the founding of the country and the Constitution of the United States.

Let’s get this point out of the way at the start. The primary cause of the American Civil War is slavery, pure and simple. Every secession document attests to that fact. The Cornerstone Speech of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens is very clear about their beliefs:

“Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.”

Yes, the South complained about the tariff system in the United States but the impact of tariffs on the Southern states was exacerbated by the institution of slavery. The Southern planter economy was based on slavery and never really diversified in the antebellum period. Every part of the Southern economy was subordinated to the institution of slavery and its products: cotton, tobacco, rice and peanuts.

The Southern states claimed that states’ rights was a primary cause of the war but the root cause of this was slavery. Without slavery the Southern states would not have complained so loudly about state’s rights. Without slavery there would have been no need for nullification.

Let’s start at the beginning then. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought about twenty black Africans to the Colony of Virginia as indentured servants. From this beginning, slavery will be introduced to the future United States. From 1619 until 1865 and even to today, all of American history has been impacted by that one event.

By 1671 about 2,000 of the 40,000 inhabitants of colonial Virginia are imported slaves. White indentured servants working for five years before their release are three times as numerous and provide much of the hard labor. But that would change as more and more black slaves replaced white indentured servants.

By 1719, non-slaveholding farmers in Virginia think slave labor threatens their livelihoods. They persuade the General Assembly to discuss a prohibition of slavery or a ban on importing slaves. In response, the assembly raises the tariff on slaves to five pounds, which about equals the full price of an indenture, so as not to make importation of slaves as initially attractive or preferable to a mere indenture for a term of years.

In 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution, Quakers, under the leadership of James Pemberton, and those of other faiths including Dr. Benjamin Rush, organize the first anti-slavery society in the colonies soon to become the United States, The Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, in Philadelphia.

In 1776, the United States Declaration of Independence declares “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Written by a slave-owning Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, it allows slavery to remain legal in the colonies.

In 1778, the Virginia legislature passes a law, with Thomas Jefferson’s support and probably authorship, that bans importing slaves into Virginia. It is the first state to ban the slave trade, and all other states eventually followed.

On July 13, 1787 the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation passes the Northwest Ordinance to govern territory north of the Ohio River and west of Pennsylvania. The territory will become the states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In the ordinance, Congress prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude in the territory and requires the return of fugitive slaves found in the territory to their owners. The law no longer applies as soon as the territories become states.

Anti-slavery Northerners cite the ordinance many times over the years as precedent for the limitation, if not the abolition, of slavery in the United States. Despite the terms of the ordinance, Southern-born settlers will try and fail to pass laws to allow slavery in Indiana and Illinois.

Following the collapse of the Articles of Confederation the Continental Congress convenes to rewrite the Articles. But in attempting to do so they realize that a new document must be framed in order to govern the 13 colonies that are now the United States.

In the next post, we’ll look at the Constitution of the United and the debate over slavery and federalism.


After the War: Jefferson Davis

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series After the War: Civilian Leaders

Jefferson Davis with the Confederate FlagJefferson Davis was the first, last and only President of the Confederate States. In his lifetime Jefferson Davis served the United States as a soldier during the Mexican War, a Congressman and Senator from Mississippi and as Secretary of War.

When Ulysses Grant’s troops captured Richmond on April 3, 1865 Davis fled by train to Danville where he lived in the home of Major William T. Sutherlin. By April 12th Davis had been informed of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia in a letter from Robert E. Lee. He issued his last official proclamation as president of the Confederacy, and then went south to Greensboro, North Carolina.

After Lee’s surrender, a public meeting was held in Shreveport, Louisiana, at which many speakers supported continuation of the war. Plans were developed for the Davis government to flee to Havana, Cuba. There, the leaders would regroup and head to the Confederate-controlled Trans-Mississippi area by way of the Rio Grande. None of these plans came to fruition.

On April 14th Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, an act that Davis expressed regret for. Davis felt that Lincoln would have been less harsh than his successor, Andrew Johnson. Johnson issued a $100,000 reward for the capture of Davis and accused him of helping to plan the assassination. As the Confederate military structure fell into disarray, the search for Davis by Union forces intensified.

President Davis met with his Confederate Cabinet for the last time on May 5, 1865, in Washington, Georgia, and officially dissolved the Confederate government. The meeting took place at the Heard house, the Georgia Branch Bank Building, with 14 officials present. Along with their hand-picked escort led by Given Campbell, Davis and his wife were captured by Union forces on May 10 at Irwinville in Irwin County, Georgia.

Davis was taken to Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula and began his imprisonment on May 19th. Initially he was lodged in a casemate. Irons were riveted to his ankles at the order of General Nelson Miles who was in charge of the fort.

Davis was allowed no visitors, and no books except the Bible. His health began to suffer, and the attending physician warned that the prisoner’s life was in danger, but this treatment continued for some months until late autumn when he was finally given better quarters. General Miles was transferred in mid-1866, and Davis’ treatment continued to improve.

Varina Davis and their daughter Winnie joined the former Confederate President and eventually they were given an apartment in officer’s quarters. During his imprisonment Davis was indicted for treason but there was no appetite for trials. It was thought that they wouldn’t succeed and they would impede reconciliation.

After two years of imprisonment, Davis was released on bail of $100,000, which was posted by prominent citizens including Horace Greeley, Cornelius Vanderbilt and Gerrit Smith. (Smith was a former member of the Secret Six who had supported abolitionist John Brown.) Davis went to Montreal, Canada to join his family which had fled there earlier, and lived in Lennoxville, Quebec until 1868 also visiting Cuba, and Europe in search of work. Davis remained under indictment until he was released from all liability by the presidential amnesty issued by Johnson on December 25, 1868.

In 1869 Davis became president of the Carolina Life Insurance Company in Memphis, Tennessee, where he resided at the Peabody Hotel. Elected to the U.S. Senate again, he was refused the office in 1875, having been barred from Federal office by Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. He turned down the opportunity to become the first president of the Agriculture and Mechanical College of Texas (now Texas A&M University).

In 1878 Sarah Anne Ellis Dorsey made over her will, leaving Beauvoir and her financial assets of $50,000 (equivalent to $1,222,000 in 2014) to Jefferson Davis and, in the case of his death, to his only surviving child, Winnie Davis. Dorsey died in 1879, by which time both the Davises and Winnie were living at Beauvoir. Over the next two years, Davis completed The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government

In 1881 Davis gained legal title to his plantation Brierfield. It had been given to him by his brother Joseph but he never had legal title.

In 1886 and 1887 Davis made a tour of the South and spoke at numerous meetings. He attended Lost Cause ceremonies, where large crowds showered him with affection and local leaders presented emotional speeches honoring his sacrifices to the would-be nation. Such events helped the South come to terms with their defeat and continued for decades after the war.

The Meriden Daily Journal stated that Davis, at a reception held in New Orleans in May 1887, urged southerners to be loyal to the nation. He said, “United you are now, and if the Union is ever to be broken, let the other side break it.”

Davis stated that men in the Confederacy had successfully fought for their own rights with inferior numbers during the Civil War and that the northern historians ignored this view. Davis firmly believed that Confederate secession was constitutional. The former Confederate president was optimistic concerning American prosperity and the next generation.

Davis completed A Short History of the Confederate States of America in October 1889. On a trip to New Orleans in Mid-November 1889 he contracted acute bronchitis complicated by malaria. He seemed to be recovering but in early-December he took a turn for the worse. Davis lost consciousness on the evening of December 5 and died at age 81 at 12:45 a.m. on Friday, December 6, 1889, in the presence of several friends and with his hand in Varina’s.

His funeral was one of the largest in the South. Davis was first entombed at the Army of Northern Virginia tomb at Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. In 1893, Mrs. Davis decided to have his remains reinterred at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.



After the War: Ulysses S. Grant

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series After the War: Military Leaders

Ulysses S. GrantMany of the men who fought on both sides during the Civil War became prominent politicians and businessmen after the war. In this series we are going to take a look at them. We’ll start with the Union General-in-Chief, Ulysses S. Grant.

At the end of the war Grant was approaching 43 years old, not very old for a man of his high position, even in the 19th century. He continued as the Commanding General of the United States Army until March 4, 1869 when he was succeeded by his good friend William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman held the position until November 1, 1883.

Grant stepped down because he was elected the 18th President of the United States. Grant won the election by 300,000 votes out of 5,716,082 votes cast, receiving an electoral college landslide, of 214 votes to Seymour’s 80. Grant, at the age of 46 was (at the time) the youngest president ever elected. He held that position for two terms leaving in 1877.

Grant stabilized the nation during the turbulent Reconstruction period, prosecuted the Ku Klux Klan, and enforced civil and voting rights laws using the army and the Department of Justice.

He used the army to build the Republican Party in the South, based on black voters, Northern newcomers (“carpetbaggers”), and native Southern white supporters (“scalawags”). After the disenfranchisement of some former Confederates, Republicans gained majorities and African Americans were elected to Congress and high state offices.

In his second term, the Republican coalitions in the South splintered and were defeated one by one as redeemers (conservative whites) regained control using coercion and violence.

Grant’s Indian peace policy initially reduced frontier violence, but is best known for the Great Sioux War of 1876, where George Custer and his regiment were killed at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Throughout his presidency, Grant faced congressional investigations into corruption in executive agencies, including bribery charges against two of his Cabinet members. Grant’s administration implemented a gold standard and sought to strengthen the dollar.

In foreign policy, Grant sought to increase American trade and influence, while remaining at peace with the world. His administration successfully resolved the Alabama Claims with Great Britain, ending wartime tensions. Grant avoided war with Spain over the Virginius Affair, but Congress rejected his attempted annexation of the Dominican Republic. His response to the Panic of 1873 gave some financial relief to New York banking houses, but was ineffective in halting the five-year economic depression that produced high unemployment, low prices, low profits, and bankruptcies.

After he left the White House Grant and his wife embarked on a two-year world tour. The trip began in Liverpool in May 1877, where enormous crowds greeted the ex-president and his entourage. The Grants dined with Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, and Grant gave several speeches in London.

After a tour on the continent, the Grants spent a few months with their daughter Nellie, who had married an Englishman and moved to that country several years before. Grant and his wife journeyed to France and Italy, spending Christmas 1877 aboard USS Vandalia, a warship docked in Palermo.

A winter sojourn in the Holy Land followed, and they visited Greece before returning to Italy and a meeting with Pope Leo XIII. They toured Spain before moving on to Germany, where Grant discussed military matters with Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, telling him that in final stages of the Civil War, the Union Army fought to preserve the nation and to “destroy slavery”.

The Grants left from England by ship, sailing through the Suez Canal to India. They visited cities throughout the Raj, welcomed by colonial officials. After India, they toured Burma, Siam (where Grant met with King Chulalongkorn), Singapore, and Cochinchina (Vietnam). 

Traveling on to Hong Kong, Grant began to change his mind on the nature of colonization, believing that British rule was not “purely selfish” but also good for the colonial subjects. Leaving Hong Kong, the Grants visited the cities of Canton, Shanghai, and Peking, China.

He declined to ask for an interview with the Guangxu Emperor, a child of seven, but did speak with the head of government, Prince Gong, and Li Hongzhang, a leading general. They discussed China’s dispute with Japan over the Ryukyu Islands, and Grant agreed to help bring the two sides to agreement. After crossing over to Japan and meeting the Emperor Meiji, Grant convinced China to accept the Japanese annexation of the islands, and the two nations avoided war.

Both of the Grants were homesick and in 1879 they returned to the United States by way of San Francisco where they were greeted by cheering crowds. By the end of the year the were back in Philadelphia. Grant’s new-found popularity encouraged the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party to press him to run for a third term. The 1880 convention became in a bitter contest that lasted 36 ballots until James Garfield, a compromise candidate was nominated.

Grant tried several business but eventually they were all unsuccessful. The ventures depleted Grant’s savings and he was forced to sell  his Civil War mementos and the sale or transfer of all other assets. By 1884 he was bankrupt and destitute.

After writing several articles about the war which were well received, Grant began to write his memoirs at the urging of the editor, Robert Underwood Johnson.

By late 1884 Grant had received a diagnosis of throat cancer. Despite his debilitating illness, Grant worked diligently on his memoirs at his home in New York City, and then from a cottage on the slopes of Mount McGregor, finishing only days before he died.

Century magazine offered Grant a book contract with a 10 percent royalty, but Grant accepted a better offer from his friend, Mark Twain, who proposed a 75 percent royalty. His memoir ends with the Civil War, and does not cover the post-war years, including his presidency.

The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was a critical and commercial success. In the end, Julia Grant received about $450,000 in royalties. The memoir has been highly regarded by the public, military historians, and literary critics.

After a year-long struggle with the cancer, Grant died at 8 o’clock in the morning in the Mount McGregor cottage on July 23, 1885, at the age of 63. Phillip Sheridan, then Commanding General of the Army, ordered a day-long tribute to Grant on all military posts, and President Grover Cleveland ordered a thirty-day nationwide period of mourning.

After private services, the honor guard placed Grant’s body on a special funeral train, which traveled to West Point and New York City. A quarter of a million people viewed it in the two days before the funeral. Tens of thousands of men, many of them veterans from the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) or other veterans’ organizations, marched with Grant’s casket drawn by two dozen horses to Riverside Park in Manhattan. His pallbearers included Union generals Sherman and Sheridan, Confederate generals Simon Bolivar Buckner and Joseph E. Johnston, Admiral David Dixon Porter, and Senator John A. Logan, the head of the GAR.

Grant’s body was laid to rest in Riverside Park, first in a temporary tomb, and then—twelve years later, on April 17, 1897—in the General Grant National Memorial, also known as “Grant’s Tomb”. The tomb is the largest mausoleum in North America. Attendance at the New York funeral topped 1.5 million.Ceremonies were held in other major cities around the country, and those who eulogized Grant in the press likened him to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Ulysses S. Grant had come a long way from Galena, Illinois to the height of fame. His main character trait as a general was highlighted by Abraham Lincoln. When he was pressed to remove Grant after the Battle of Shiloh, Lincoln told the critic: ‘I can’t spare this man; he fights.'”




The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina

This entry is part of 8 in the series Military Academies of the United States

The Citadel in CharlestonThe Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina is also known as The Military College of South Carolina, commonly is a state-supported, comprehensive college. It was founded in 1842 as one of the six Senior Military Colleges in the United States.

Currently, The Citadel has 17 academic departments divided into five schools offering 19 majors and 35 minors. The core program consists of military cadets pursuing bachelor’s degrees who are required to live on campus for all four years.

In 1829 South Carolina constructed an arsenal on what is now Marion Square in downtown Charleston to house arms and ammunition. The State entered into an agreement with the War Department in 1830 for Federal troops from nearby Fort Moultrie to guard this new arsenal, state militia replaced them in 1832.

Over the next 10 years arsenals throughout the state were consolidated in Charleston and Columbia, Governor John Richardson eventually proposed converting both into military academies and on December 20, 1842 the South Carolina Legislature passed “an Act to convert the Arsenal at Columbia and the citadel and magazine in and near Charleston, into Military Schools” thereby transforming the two state arsenals into the South Carolina Military Academy. The act specified:

That the students when admitted, shall be formed into a military corps, and shall constitute the public guard of the Arsenal at Columbia, and of the Citadel and Magazine in and near Charleston … to guard effectually, the public arms and other property at the places aforsaid …

The first 20 cadets reported to the Citadel Academy at Marion Square in downtown Charleston on March 20, 1843, a date now celebrated as “Corps Day”. Initially both schools operated as separate institutions governed by a common Board of Visitors, in 1845 the Arsenal Academy in Columbia became an auxiliary to the Citadel Academy in Charleston; first year students attended the Arsenal then transferred to the Citadel Academy to complete their education. Both schools continued to operate during the Civil War but the Arsenal in Columbia was burned by Union forces and never reopened.

On January 9, 1861, a battery on Morris Island manned by Citadel Academy cadets fired on the U.S. steamer Star of the West, preventing it from reaching Fort Sumter with troops and supplies and thus firing what is considered to be the first shots of the American Civil War. Citadel cadets also manned several guns at “the battery” on Charleston harbor during the firing on Fort Sumter of April 12–13, 1861. The first shot of the bombardment is believed by many historians to have been fired by Second Lieutenant Henry S. Farley, Class of 1860.

On January 28, 1861 the Corps of Cadets of The SC Military Academy was made part of the military organization of the state and named the Battalion of State Cadets. The Academy continued to operate as a military academy, but classes were often disrupted when the governor called the cadets into military service.

Mounting and manning heavy guns, performing guard duty, providing security and escorting prisoners were among the services performed by the cadets. The Battalion of State Cadets participated in eight engagements during the Civil War. As a result of these actions, the state of South Carolina authorized the flag of the South Carolina Corps of Cadets to carry the following Confederate battle streamers:

  1. Confederate States Army
  2. Star of the West, January 9, 1861
  3. Wappoo Cut, November 1861
  4. James Island, June 1862
  5. Charleston and Vicinity, July–October 1863
  6. James Island, June 1864
  7. Tulifinny, December 1864
  8. James Island, December 1864–February 1865
  9. Williamston, May 1865

In early December, 1864 Governor Bonham ordered the Battalion of State Cadets to Tulifinny Creek near Yemassee, South Carolina to join a small Confederate force defending the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. On December 7 and 9 the entire Corps of Cadets fought a much larger Union force (including a contingent of U.S. Marines) in the Battle of Tulifinny, successfully defending the rail line and forcing the Union troops to withdraw.

This battle is the only occasion when the entire student body of a U.S. college fought in combat. The Citadel is one of only 7 colleges to have received a battle streamer for wartime service. During the conflict 43 graduates and 200 former cadets were Killed in Action.

On February 18, 1865, the school ceased operation as a college when Union troops entered Charleston and occupied the site. Following the war, the Board of Visitors eventually regained possession of The Citadel campus and with the urging of Governor Johnson Hagood, Class of 1847 the South Carolina Legislature passed an act to reopen the college. The 1882 session began with an enrollment of 185 cadets.


Christmas During the American Civil War

Christmas 1862 husband and wife separated by warChristmas celebrations were by their very nature subdued in many parts of the North and the South. The year of 1862 had seen a series of grim and bloody battles, with Shiloh, the Peninsula Campaign, the Seven Days battles, Second Manassas and the bloodiest day of all at Antietam.

The New York Times reported that Christmas 1862 was “the dampest, warmest, muggiest and most burdened with mingled feelings of joy and grief.” The unseasonably warm weather had made the Central Park Pond unsafe for skating, but had brought out crowds of Christmas shoppers.

“The money expended this year in Christmas gifts exceeds by far, by very far, that which has gone that way in many years,” the Times noted. Furs were a popular gift that year, and the streets echoed with the blare of tin horns, the latest craze among young boys.

In Washington, the Lincolns visited wounded soldiers in the area’s military hospitals. The recently concluded Battle of Fredericksburg had produced thousands of casualties, many of whom were transported to the 46 hospitals in the Washington area.

President Lincoln was visibly shaken by the outcome of the battle, and looked more sad First images of Santa Clausand careworn than usual. He remarked to his friend Governor Andrew G. Curtin of Pennsylvania, “If there is a worse place than Hell, I am in it.”

It was reported that 6,000 pounds of poultry and “large quantities of other delicacies” were distributed to the hospitals for the Christmas dinners of the wounded. “Fish, flesh and fowl, puddings and pies, and these of all sorts,” one report said, “with plenty of cider.”

Meanwhile, Confederate President celebrated Christmas in his home in Mississippi. “After an absence of nearly two years,” he said, “I again find myself among those who…have ever been the trusted object of my affection.” But Confederate Christmas celebrations in the area were cut short by reports of Union troop movements on the Mississippi threatening Vicksburg.

In the fall of 1862, Confederate refugees from the fighting in the areas surrounding the capital began to flood into the city. They included those who fled farms and towns now in Union-held territory, wives of Confederate soldiers looking for employment, and the destitute.

This influx of refugees drove rent prices much higher than they’d been previously, and wartime inflation sent prices on everyday goods skyrocketing. In the city, ten pounds of bacon, which cost $1.25 in 1860, now cost $10. Four pounds of coffee jumped from $0.50 to $20.

Richmond diarist and author Sallie Brock Putnam wrote about the sadness of Christmas for families who had lost soldiers in the war:

The Christmas dinner passed off gloomily. The vacant chairs were multiplied in Southern homes, and even the children who had curiously questioned the cause of the absence of the young soldier brother from the festive board, had heard too much, had seen too much, and knew too well why sad-colored garments were worn by the mother, and why the fold of rusty crape placed around the worn hat of the father, and why the joyous mirth of the sister was restrained, and her beautiful figure draped in mourning. Congratulations were forced, and tears had taken the place of smiles on countenances where cheerfulness was wont to reign.

Christmas of 1862 saw an important cultural development with the emergence of the modern image of Santa Claus. Famed illustrator FOC Darley published an edition of Clement Clark Moore’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) featuring drawings of Santa as a plump man with a pipe, furry coat and pointed hat.

Thomas Nast, who in the late 19th century produced what came to be regarded as the definitive representations of St. Nick, published his first Santa drawing in Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863. “Santa Claus in Camp“ showed a star-spangled Santa in his reindeer-drawn sleigh handing out presents to jubilant soldiers.

General Robert E. Lee in GordonsvilleA reported 40,000 soldiers watched a baseball game at Hilton Head, S.C., between the 165th New York Zouave regiment and a picked team from other units. One of the players was Abraham Gilbert Mills, later president of the National League.

Across the South there were movements of troops. Confederate General John Hunt Morgan engaged in his famous Christmas Raid in Kentucky; on that single day, Morgan’s men destroyed everything they possibly could of the improvements that the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had made along 35 miles of track from Bacon Creek to Lebanon Junction.

Robert E. Lee wrote his wife, “What a cruel thing is war. To separate & destroy families & friends & mar the purest joy and happiness God has granted us in this world…. I pray that on this day when ‘peace & good will’ are preached to all mankind that better thoughts will fill the hearts of our enemies & turn them to peace.”

Meanwhile, along the Rappahannock River, the two armies faced each other, probing their opponent’s lines looking for weak spots and capturing prisoners and supplies. Soldiers in both armies did what soldiers normally do during the winter. They rested and refitted. They entertained themselves with games and tournaments. They exchanged supplies with their fellow Americans across the river.

“And so the day passed,” 18-year old Private John R. Paxton, 140th Pennsylvania wrote. “And we forgot the biting wind, the chilling cold; we forgot those men over there were our enemies, whom it might be our duty to shoot before evening. We had bridged the river, spanned the bloody chasm. We were brothers, not foes, waving salutations of good-will in the name of the Babe of Bethlehem, on Christmas Day in ‘62.” By the end of the war Paxton had risen through the ranks to the rank of Captain.




Union Reversal at Galveston

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Closing the Southern Ports

Galveston, the island city along the Texas coast, had been under blockade since July 1861. Admiral David Farragut was at loose ends after the capture of New Orleans and the failure to take Vicksburg by the Navy. The Army had not sent enough troops to assist him in the latter task so he looked around for another target and Farragut decided to capture Galveston. The city had become a center of manufacturing and service businesses specializing in the shipping trade. Before the outbreak of the war two-thirds of all cotton exported from Texas had come through its port.

With the capture of New Orleans, Galveston was one of only two ports on the Gulf Coast that was open to blockade runners. Mobile Bay was the other one and Farragut did not have enough troops to capture it.

Galveston Bay in 1862Farragut ordered Commander William Renshaw to move his squadron to Galveston Harbor on October 4, 1862 and demanded the surrender of the city. The Confederate commander, Colonel Joseph Cook, agreed but only on the condition of a four-day truce. Inexplicably, Renshaw agreed to this condition and Cook was able to evacuate personnel and military supplies to Fort Hebert on the mainland.

The citizens who remained in the city were either Union sympathizers or were willing to act as if they were. The Union occupation of Galveston was only during the daytime at first with Union marines returning to their ships at night.

Renshaw’s squadron included seven warships and three companies of army troops from the 42nd Massachusetts Infantry, led by Colonel Isaac Burrell. The army troops arrived at Galveston on December 24th. Farragut had asked for more troops but the lack of cooperation by the Army and especially Maj. Gen. Benjamin Butler was to prove the undoing of the Galveston enterprise.

The Massachusetts infantry secured the area around the wharfs and waterfront warehouses at the end of Kuhn’s Wharf as best they could. Burrell ordered his men to reinforce a large three-story warehouse as a strong point. He also had them pull up all of the planks on the wharf but one to impede any Confederate attack.

Despite all of his caution, Burrell left the bridge from the mainland to Galveston unguarded. Army transports with field artillery arrived in the harbor but the guns were not landed. Generally, the important port of Galveston was lightly defended.

In late November 1862, Maj. Gen. John Magruder assumed command of all Confederate forces in Texas. Magruder had seen action with Johnston General John B. Magruderand later, lee during the Peninsula campaign earlier in the year. He made the retaking of Galveston one of his primary goals.

Magruder envisioned a joint Army-Navy operation to retake Galveston. There was one problem with his plan; he had no naval forces to carry out that part of his plan. All that he had available were several companies of artillery and a handful of militia. Some of his subordinates questioned the feasibility of Magruder’s plans.

Magruder did have Leon Smith, an experienced steamboat captain, who was able to assemble a small flotilla of “cottonclads” to assist in the operation. The “cottonclads”, Bayou City and Neptune, used two or three layers of cotton bales to protect their vulnerable points on the ships. Each of the vessels was equipped with artillery from the 1st Texas Heavy Artillery. The Bayou City was equipped with a 32-pounder rifled gun and the Neptune with two 24-pounder howitzers.

Magruder was able to cajole a local commander for the use of 300 men. He equipped them with Enfield rifles and double-barreled shotguns. They were assigned to the “cottonclads” as sharpshooters and boarders. Smith added two armed tenders to his flotilla.

Magruder ordered his forces to attack in the pre-dawn hours of January 1, 1863. Magruder positioned 20 pieces of artillery along the waterfront to bombard the Union ships in the harbor. After firing the first gun at the USS Owasco, Magruder retired to his headquarters about ten miles from the waterfront.

The Confederate infantry waded on either side of Kuhn’s Wharf with ladders to climb up the wharf and arrive in the enemy rear. The ladders turned out to be too short and the Confederates were forced to wade back to shore while under heavy fire. Once it lightened, the Union warships began to target the Confederate artillery positions with deadly accurate fire. Things looked bad for Magruder’s forces and considered ordering a general retreat.

Battle of Galveston BayAt this point in the battle Smith and his small flotilla arrived on the scene. Expecting a midnight attack and when it didn’t happen Smith had grown tired of waiting for the attack. He had moved his vessels up the bay. When he heard the first guns firing, he mad a dash back into position. The 32-pounder on the Bayou City exploded after four shots but Smith was undeterred. He orded his ships to close with the Union vessels.

An unsuccessful attack on the USRC Harriet Lane caused the Neptune so much damage that she began to sink. The captain managed to settle her on a sandbar where the sharpshooters were able to continue the fight. The Bayou City attacked the Harriet Lane for a second time. They managed to board and capture the ship, killing both the captain and the first officer. Ironically, the first officer, Lt. Comdr. Edward Lea’s father was serving as a volunteer on Magruder’s staff. He was able to be with his son before he died.

The Confederates arranged a truce and called for Commander William Renshaw to surrender. He refused and ordered Commander Richard Law, captain of the USS Clifton, to withdraw from the bay with the rest of the squadron. Renshaw’s vessel, the USS Westfield, had run aground in the Bolivar Channel. Renshaw resolved to scuttle her and leave on longboats. Before they could depart, the fires reached the magazine and exploded killing all on board. The other vessels escaped from the bay.

The Confederate attack was a shocking victory. The Union side lost two ships and sustained 414 casualties while the Confederates lost the Neptune, along with 26 dead and 117 wounded.

But this wasn’t the end of activity around Galveston. Farragut dispatched the USS Brooklyn and six gunboats to retake the city. On January 11th, they encountered the Confederate raider CSS Alabama. Captain Henry Bell, the squadron commander, dispatched the lightly-armed USS Hatteras to investigate the ship sighting. Totally overmatched, the Alabama sank the Union side-wheeler in 13 minutes.

The sinking of the Hatteras forced Captain Bell to break off his attack on the city and within the month Farragut abandoned any plans to retake Galveston. It was to remain in Confederate hands until June 2, 1865.

The Galveston reversal pointed out that there needed to be stronger cooperation between the Army and the Navy when attempting to secure the Southern ports.



The Destruction of the Southern Railroads

This entry is part 6 of 8 in the series Railroads of the Civil War

Union troops destroying a rail line near AtlantaWilliam Tecumseh Sherman was among the first of America’s modern generals. Like his commander, Ulysses S. Grant, Sherman understood the value and importance of railroads to the Confederate war effort. Grant, Sherman and Phillip Sheridan were proponents of ‘Hard War’, the utter destruction of every resource that the Confederates could use to continue their war against the Union.

One of Sherman’s primary targets in his campaigns in the South were the Southern railroads. His initial target after he took command of the Western Theater was the city of Atlanta. The city was one of the South’s three main rail centers, along with Chattanooga and Richmond.

The Southern government was slow to recognize the importance of railroads and rail centers in their war effort. The Union Army on the other hand understood their importance to both sides and laid out specific plans to cripple the Southern railroads.

In the Eastern Theater Grant ordered the armies surrounding Richmond and Petersburg to make every effort to cut the two cities off from sources of supply by destroying the railroads that led into the cities. The Siege of Petersburg was not so much a siege in the traditional sense but a siege on the Southern supply lines. Gradually, the Union Army began to choke the Confederate capital and the Army of Northern Virginia to death.

In Tennessee, Grant’s forces had captured the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Because of Chattanooga’s strategic location, river and rail systems, Chattanooga was considered the gateway to the Deep South and an important location for both the Union and the Confederate armies. The city had been captured by the Union Army of the Cumberland.

With the capture of Atlanta in September of 1864 Sherman completed the job by beginning a methodical destruction of the railroads that ran in all directions from Atlanta.

The Mobile and Ohio Railroad had been chartered in 1848 by the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. It was planned to span the distance between the seaport of Mobile, Alabama and the Ohio River near Cairo, Illinois. The start of the Civil War saw it converted to military use and it quickly became a military target for both sides during the war.

According to an annual report by the railroad in 1866, the line was totally destroyed for 184 miles between Union City, Tennessee and Okolona, Mississippi.  The bridges, depots, trestles and shops were destroyed.  Even the rails were bent and deemed unusable by the Union forces.  At Mobile, most of the rolling stock and engines were destroyed.  The line was also several million dollars in debt ($5.2 million in confederate currency – translated into over $8 billion in today’s dollars).

In November 1862, Ulysses S. Grant began the Mississippi Central Railroad Campaign down the line with the ultimate goal of capturing Vicksburg in conjunction with William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant established a base in Holly Springs and began advancing south along the railroad. Confederate soldiers built earthwork fortifications to defend the railroad’s Tallahatchie River bridge near Abbeville but retreated south without firing a shot when they learned of a flanking maneuver by Grant.

Skirmishes were fought along the railroad to Oxford and in the streets of the town itself. The Confederates were pushed further south past Water Valley, Mississippi but managed to damage a railroad trestle and lead a successful ambush at Oakland, Mississippi that stalled the Federal advance.

While Grant was stalled, Confederate General Van Dorn lead a successful cavalry raid on Grant’s supply base at Holly Springs, burning most of his supplies and then moved north destroying the railroad and telegraph lines along the way. With the railroad destroyed Grant had no way to resupply his army and was forced to end the campaign and retreat to Memphis, TN.

The New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern was a 206 miles 5 ft gauge railway originally commissioned by the State of Illinois in the 1851. The railroad was the South’s longest rail line. It connected Canton with New Orleans and was completed just prior to the Civil War, in which it served strategic interests, especially for the Confederacy. The New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern was largely in ruins by the end of the War.

When the war started, it was one of the best roads in the Confederacy. It actually had 7 locomotives and 11 passenger cars in reserve for an expected increaseSherman's Bowties in traffic. When New Orleans fell under the guns of Farragut’s fleet in April 1862, the road spent four frantic days hauling troops, supplies and equipment out of the city to the north. Only when General Butler’s troops finally arrived on shore did the removal stop.

For the rest of the war, the road operated with Ponchatoula on the northern edge of Lake Pontchartrain, as its southern terminal. There were numerous Union attempts to disrupt the road, and, little by little, it ceased to operate. By the end of the war, the road had only 4 locomotives (2 partially burned) and 40 cars on a limited piece of track.

As Sherman’s forces marched to the sea and then up through the Carolina’s they methodically destroyed the Southern railroads. They used a particular method of rendering the rails useless by bending them around poles and trees. First, they would remove the rails from the sleepers. Then, they would stack the sleepers in a square with a furiously burning fire in the middle. Once the fire was sufficiently stoked they would lay the rails on top. Once the rails were soft enough the troops would bend them around a pole or tree making what became known as ‘Sherman’s Neckties’ or ‘Sherman’s Bowties’.

From 1864 until the end of the war, the Confederacy’s ability to repair the Union Army’s destruction began to decline. Sherman’s February 1864 campaign through Mississippi caused so much destruction that it took four months to repair. His later campaigns were so destructive that many of the railroads remained out of service through the end of the war.

Part of the Confederacy’s repair problems were due to the Confederate government’s near total lack of assistance to the railroads. Neither manpower nor supplies was forthcoming. This was often justified as a matter of state’s rights. On the other hand the very same government was more than willing to conscript railroad workers and supplies. The Confederate government was willing to take but not to give.


Antietam: 152 Years Later

The Battle of AntietamThis is a post that I wrote two years ago on the occasion of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It bears repeating to inform people about the horrific price that America paid during the American Civil War. Let us all fervently pray that we will never be asked to pay that steep a price again. But if we are asked to defend our rights let us hope that we can show the same type of courage and bravery that our forebears did.

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, also known as Sharpsburg. Whatever you call it, this battle marked the first great turning point in the American Civil War in the East.

Historians argue endlessly about turning points in the Civil War but about Antietam there is very little argument. Everything after the battle was changed by its impact on Union policy. Let’s start with the smaller changes that came from the battle and move up to the one great change that turned the fortunes of war in favor of the North.

Antietam marked the last battle of Maj. Gen. George McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac. His inability to pursue the shattered Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and allow it to return to the safety of Virginia was simply too much for Abraham Lincoln to bear.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck wrote in his official report, “The long inactivity of so large an army in the face of a defeated foe, and during the most favorable season for rapid movements and a vigorous campaign, was a matter of great disappointment and regret.” Lincoln relieved McClellan of his command of the Army of the Potomac on November 7, effectively ending the general’s military career.

Following McClellan at the helm of the Army of the Potomac was Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside who had turned the President down before McClellan’s reinstatement. He claimed that he was not qualified to command the army. At Fredericksburg in December, Burnside proved that his own opinion of himself was correct.

He was followed by Maj. Gen. Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker was thoroughly whipped by Robert E. Lee at Chancellorsville and was relieved of command three days before the momentous Battle of Gettysburg. He in turn was replaced by Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade who retained command for the rest of the war.

Antietam was to begin the process that eventually brought General Ulysses S. Grant to the position of general-in-chief of all the Union armies. His military genius was to change the face of war and bring victory to the forces of the Union.

Antietam was the battle that brought that face of war to the general public of the North. Mathew Brady, the well-known New York photographer, Alexander Gardner at Antietamhad dispatched Alexander Gardner to the battle field to take photographs of the aftermath of the battle.

In October 1862, the results of Gardner’s battlefield images were exhibited in Brady’s New York gallery titled “The Dead of Antietam.” Many images in this presentation were graphic photographs of corpses, a presentation new to America. This was the first time that many Americans saw the realities of war in photographs as distinct from previous “artists’ impressions”.

The images of the wholesale slaughter on the battlefield of Antietam brought the war home to northern civilians in a way that casualty lists and battlefield sketches could not. The images of piles of dead soldiers in the Cornfield and the Sunken Road were so graphic that many people were shocked into understanding the death and destruction that this war was causing.

Both armies was severely wounded after the battle. With over 23,000 casualties inflicted, both armies took several months to recover. Some historians say that the Confederate army never recovered from the wholesale bloodletting at Antietam. But recover they did and defeated the Union Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville due to the superior generalship of their commander, Robert E. Lee.

The most important result of the Battle of Antietam was Lincoln’s issuing of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On September 22nd, the President issued the proclamation that would change the Union war aims and his country forever.

Earlier that summer Lincoln had said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the Dead Confederates at the Sunken Roadslaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.” 

The Emancipation Proclamation when it came into effect on January 1, 1863 would forever change the war from one that only sought to preserve the Union but one that would set men free. Lincoln’s ringing phrase, “…thenceforward, and forever free” would change the United States of America for all time.

As a direct result of the proclamation 180,000 African-Americans would enlist in the Union army and assist in the ultimate victory over the Confederate states. Their value to the Union cause cannot be understated.

So, today is not only a turning point in the American Civil War but also a turning point in the history of the United States.

I have the honor of being the great-great grandson of Michael Patrick Murphy, Sergeant, Company D, 61st New York Volunteer Infantry, Caldwell’s Brigade, Richardson’s Division. On September 17th, 1862 he fought at the Sunken Road, forever known afterward as ‘Bloody Lane’. Everytime that I look in a mirror his blue eyes are looking back at me, just like my grandmother told me they would when I was a child. We, his descendants, have a fierce pride that one of our ancestors helped to save the Union.


Virginia Divided and Occupied

This entry is part 2 of 14 in the series The Divided States of the South

Virginia in 1860The Commonwealth of Virginia was the Southern state that saw the majority of the fighting in the Eastern Theater. Many of its citizens and their property were subjected to the constant ebbs and flows of various armies. As an example the Shenandoah Valley was burned from end to end over the four years of the war.

What we’ll be looking at in this post is how Virginia came to be divided and then partially occupied by Union forces. It is not the purview of this post to discuss the numerous major battles on the soil of the Old Dominion. Those can be found at other places on this blog and would require a book-length presentation to do them justice. Rather we’ll first look at the creation of West Virginia and then the Union occupation of northern and eastern Virginia.

Virginia in 1860 was the most populous of the Southern states. With almost half a million enslaved people, it had the highest number of residents living in slavery. Virginia also had probably the most varied geography, the most diversified economy, and the third-largest land area of any slave state.

Not only was Virginia a Mid-Atlantic state but because of its long Ohio River border it was also a Mid-Western state. Virginia bordered on five slave states: Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, and two free states: Pennsylvania and Ohio. Thus, it would be a key state in any conflict between North and South.

By 1860 Virginia’s economy was different than the other Southern states. Industrialization was growing across the state. The once-vibrant plantation economy was no longer as widespread. Many slaves were either being sold south for use on cotton, rice or tobacco plantations or rented to industrial enterprises.

As the calls for secession increased there was no way to gauge the sentiment of Virginia citizens if a Republican presidential candidate who was opposed to slavery won the election in November that year. The mood in the mountains of western Virginia was primarily anti-secession while other parts of the state were ambivalent.

John Brown’s Raid on the Federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in October 1859 inflamed public opinion in the state. Many Southern slave owners feared that other abolitionists would also incite an insurrection of enslaved people and spread violence and bloodshed throughout the South. Those in Virginia were no exception. 

The Presidential election of 1860 would set the stage for the secession and division of Virginia. Four candidates took part. Two were Democrats: Stephen Douglas of Illinois and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. John Bell who ran under the banner of the Constitutional Union Party was from Tennessee. Finally, Abraham Lincoln was the nominee of the new Republican Party.

In Virginia, the presidential election of 1860 was the closest in history. Constitutional Union candidate John Bell very narrowly won the state’s fifteen electoral votes, in addition to those of Kentucky and Tennessee. He received 74,701 votes, as reported in the Richmond Daily Enquirer of December 24, 1860; John C. Breckinridge received 74,379; Stephen A. Douglas received 16,292; and Abraham Lincoln received 1,929. 

As a measure of the division throughout the country Lincoln was not even on the ballot in nine southern states. South Carolina had no popular vote nor did they cast any electoral votes.

On December 18, 1860, Senator John Jordan Crittenden, of Kentucky, introduced compromise proposals that he hoped would be agreeable to enough Northern and Southern leaders that the crisis could be ended peacefully and the Union preserved. The Senate tabled Crittenden’s proposals late in December 1860, and the House of Representatives never took a final vote on any of the elements of Crittenden’s plan.

Two days after Crittenden introduced his compromise South Carolina seceded from the Union. Within weeks six other states followed them out of the Union On January 19, 1861, the General Assembly of Virginia issued a call for a national peace conference to meet in Washington to seek a compromise to end the crisis. Their efforts were for naught for like the Crittenden proposals, the Peace Conference’s proposals were unacceptable to many leaders in both sections.

In mid-January 1861, the General Assembly of Virginia ordered an election of delegates to a convention to consider the question of secession. The Assembly asked voters to decide whether the convention, if it chose to secede, had to submit its decision to the voters for ratification or rejection in a popular referendum.

The convention that met in Richmond from February 13 through May 1, 1861, is known in Virginia’s history as the Secession Convention, but for its first two months it was a Union convention. Unlike state conventions in the lower South that met and speedily voted to secede, the Virginia convention remained in session for two and a half months and kept Virginia in the Union until mid-April 1861.

At the same time, the delegates attempted to enlist the other upper South slave states that also remained in the Union in finding a compromise that would allow the states that had seceded to return and restore the Union. The electorate voted to hold a popular referendum on the issue if the convention decided that Virginia should secede from the Union. Overall, about two-thirds of Virginia’s voters favored requiring the referendum, suggesting the relative weakness of secession sentiment in the state at that time.

The pro-secession editor of an Abingdon Democratic newspaper wrote, “the immediate secession candidates have been badly whipped—in fact, have been almost annihilated,—and the gentlemen representing the ‘wait-a-bit‘ ticket triumphantly elected.”

On April 4, 1861, when the question faced by the delegates was whether secession was wise or desirable, 63 delegates from west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where there were very few slaves, voted to remain a part of the United States while only 15 delegates voted for secession.

In the counties east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the vote was almost equally divided, with 30 delegates voting for secession and 27 voting against it. Most of the opponents of secession in this region resided in north-central Virginia and in and around the cities of Richmond, Norfolk, and Portsmouth, where slavery was relatively less important than elsewhere.

The stage was set for the division of the state. Following the firing on Fort Sumter and Lincoln’s call for troops the convention met again and voted 88 to 55 to submit an ordinance of secession to the voters for ratification or rejection in a May referendum.

The Ordinance of Secession that the convention adopted on April 17, 1861, and that voters in the state ratified in a referendum conducted on May 23, 1861, repealed Virginia’s 1788 ratification of the Constitution of the United States and also repealed all of the General Assembly’s votes to ratify amendments to the Constitution.

The western Unionists returned home and called for a convention to meet in Wheeling in order to consider their next moves. They met during the summer of 1861 and voted to separate from Virginia. In August 1861, a third convention in Wheeling issued the call for election of a constitutional convention to create a new state consisting of western and northwestern counties of old Virginia. Initially called Kanawha and later called West Virginia, it was admitted to the Union as a free state in June 1863.

Over the next two years pieces of Virginia were captured and occupied by various Union armies. Fortress Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula always remained under the authority of the Federal government. Across from Fortress Monroe was the city of Norfolk and the Gosport Shipyard.

Almost immediately after Virginia seceded it was captured by Confederate forces. But President Lincoln realizing the importance of the naval base directed its recapture by Union troops. For the rest of the war Norfolk and the surrounding area was occupied and under martial law.

The war in the Shenandoah Valley was a constant ebb and flow of battle from north to south. As an example, the town of Winchester in the northern Valley was a strategic prize for both sides. Sitting just south of the Potomac River, Winchester lay on the only route between the east and western United States with direct connections to Washington, D.C. Passing through or nearby Winchester are major transportation and communications routes.

There were three major battles at Winchester in addition to its use as a Confederate base of operations for five major campaigns. It is claimed that Winchester changed hands as many as 72 times during the course of the war, and 13 times in one day. Battles raged all along Main Street at different points in the war. 

With barely 100 miles separating the two capital cities, Northern Virginia found itself in the center of much of the conflict. The Union army occupied large swathes of northern Virginia continually throughout the war. The city of Alexandria across the Potomac from Washington was occupied throughout the war. The Union Army used it as a base of operations to occupy a number of counties in the area.

Many of the early battles that were fought in the state were fought across the northern tier of counties stretching from Prince William County to Fairfax. In addition, much of the partisan activities carried out by both sides took place in this area.

Eventually, Union troops subdued the are and a hard border was established along the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers with the Union Army holding everything to the north. A number of significant battles were fought to the south of this line, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, the Wilderness and Spotsylvania. In fact, it could be said that the inevitable defeat of the Army of Northern Virginia began in this area.