Mary Chesnut’s “A Diary from Dixie”

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Southern Diaries, Letters and Memoirs

Mary Boykin ChesnutWithout the intercession of Ken Burns and his Civil War mini-series, we may never have known about Mary Boykin Chesnut and “A Diary from Dixie”. Mrs. Chesnut gives us a view of the Confederacy at the very highest levels. She opens a window into the inner workings of the Confederate government and events that surrounded it with an eyewitness account of its rise and fall.

Born Mary Boykin Miller was born in 1823 on her maternal grandparents’ plantation, Mount Pleasant, near Stateburg, South Carolina, in the High Hills of Santee. Her father was Stephen Decatur Miller who served as a U.S. Representative, Governor of South Carolina and U.S. Senator. He was a well-known advocate of nullification and Mary Chesnut pointed out that she was the proud daughter of a South Carolina nullifier.

At the age of 17, Mary married James Chesnut Jr. in 1840. At first, they lived on his father’s plantation, Mulberry, near Camden, South Carolina. James Chesnut Sr., known as the old Colonel, had extensive holdings in both land and slaves. In 1849, he was said to hold about five square miles of land and have about 500 slaves.

In 1858, James Chesnut Jr. who was an established politician and lawyer, was elected U.S. Senator. He served in this position until South Carolina seceded from the Union in December 1860.

Chesnut participated in the South Carolina secession convention in December 1860 and was subsequently elected to the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America. He was a member of the committee which drafted the Constitution of the Confederacy. Once the Civil War broke out, Chesnut became an aide to President Jefferson Davis and was commissioned a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Chesnut was the officer who took the surrender demand to Major Robert Anderson at Fort Sumter.

Mary Chesnut began her diary on February 17, 1861 and ended it on June 26, 1865. In it she documented many of the major events in the life of the Confederate States. The Chesnuts had a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the upper society of the South and government of the Confederacy.

Among them were, for example, Confederate general John Bell Hood, politician John L. Manning, general and politician John S. Preston and his wife Caroline, general and politician Wade Hampton III, politician Clement C. Clay and his wife Virginia, and general and politician Louis T. Wigfall and his wife Charlotte (also known as Louise). The Chesnuts were also family friends of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina Howell.

Mary Chesnut was in Montgomery, Alabama during the founding Congress of the Confederacy and the election of Jefferson Davis as its President. James Chesnut Jr.The Chesnuts returned to Charleston where her husband was an aide to General P.G.T. Beauregard. She was an eyewitness to the opening act of the war, the firing on Fort Sumter. She spent the war between Charleston, her family’s plantation and Richmond.

Mary Chesnut was present in Richmond at the close of the war. In fact, she was in the same church as Jefferson Davis when he received Robert E. Lee’s message that his lines were broken in three places and he was withdrawing from the city.Her description of Davis’ reaction was that his face turned as white as milk.

Mary Chesnut was fully aware of the events that she witnessed. The diary was filled with the cycle of changing fortunes of the South during the Civil War. Although she edited her diary in 1881-84 for publication, she was able to retain the sense of immediacy without any foreknowledge.

Mary Chesnut was a keen observer of the people around her. She analyzed and portrayed the various classes of the South through the years of the war. Her portrayal of Southern society was detailed. She was able to study the roles of men and women in society. She did not shrink from a frank discussion of slavery and its impact on Southern society.

After the war, the Chesnuts, like many of the planter elites, fell on hard times. They lost all of their slaves through emancipation. In 1866 James Chesnut Sr. died leaving James Jr. his two plantations, both of which were encumbered by debt. The younger Chesnut struggled to maintain the properties.

The estates were left to him for his use during his lifetime. Upon his death in 1885, a male Chesnut heir took possession leaving Mary with almost no income. Mary struggled through the last year of her life and died on November 22, 1886 at her home at Sarsfield, South Carolina.

Because Mary and James were childless, she gave her diary to her closest friend Isabella D. Martin and urged her to have it published. It was first published in 1905 as a heavily edited and abridged version. Since then there have been four more publications with annotations to identify fully the large cast of characters, places and events.






“Here is where treason began…”: The Burning of Columbia

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

The Burning of Columbia, SCColumbia, South Carolina was considered a notorious city by the rank-and-file Union soldiers. Many of them saw Columbia as the place where treason began. One Union soldier wrote,”Here is where treason began and, by God, here is where it will end!”

The Union soldiers in Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s army saw South Carolina as the chief instigator of the war. This war had taken them from their homes and families. It had caused the deaths of many of their comrades. They saw retribution against the state of South Carolina has just and right. And Columbia, the location of the first secession convention, was directly in their sights.

Columbia was chartered as a city in 1786 and grew rapidly until it was the largest inland city in the Carolinas by 1860. Growth was fueled by the rail lines that served Columbia. The main items that they transported were not passengers but cotton bales. Virtually all of the city’s commercial and economic activity was related to cotton. And the growth in cotton meant a corresponding growth in slavery.

The majority of the population in South Carolina was black, with concentrations in the plantation areas of the Low Country: by 1860 the population of the state was 703,620, with 57 percent or slightly more than 402,000 classified as enslaved African Americans. Free blacks numbered slightly less than 10,000.

Unlike Virginia, where most of the larger plantations and slaves were concentrated in the eastern part of the state, in South Carolina plantations and slaves became common throughout much of the state. After 1794, Eli Whitney‘s cotton gin allowed cotton plantations for short-staple cotton to be widely developed.

Columbia’s First Baptist Church hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention on December 17, 1860, with delegates selected a month earlier at Secession Hill. The delegates drafted a resolution in favor of secession without dissent, 159-0, creating the short-lived Republic of South Carolina. Columbia’s location made it an ideal spot for other conventions and meetings within the Confederacy. During the ensuing Civil War, bankers, railroad executives, teachers, and theologians from several states met in the city from time to time to discuss certain matters.

Until Sherman’s army began their march north through the Carolinas in early 1865, fighting in the state had been confined to the Atlantic coastline. Starting in 1863, the Union Navy and Army conducted amphibious assaults along the coast, capturing key locations from which they attempted to take the city of Charleston.

Union troops also occupied the Sea Islands in the Beaufort area, establishing an important base for the men and ships who would obstruct the ports at Charleston and Savannah. When the plantation owners, many of which had already gone off with the Confederate Army, fled the area, the Sea Island slaves became the first “freedmen” of the war, and the Sea Islands became the laboratory for Northern plans to educate the African Americans for their eventual role as full American citizens.

In February 1865, the Union Army entered South Carolina with 60,000 veteran troops in three columns. Moving swiftly north on February 17th, they entered the city of Columbia. Union troops were overwhelmed by thousands of celebrating former slaves who viewed them as their liberators.

Unfortunately, the retreating Confederates had left an adequate stock of liquor in the city and Union troops took advantage of it. Here is where the controversy about the burning of Columbia begins.

Some claim that the firing of the city was a deliberate act of arson carried out by Union soldiers bent on vengeance for South Carolina’s role in secession. Others say that Confederate soldiers fired bales of cotton to impede the advancing Union invaders and deny them the cotton as contraband. Still others say it was accidental.

Gen. Sherman did point out after the war that he had ordered the destruction of government buildings. The Union Army had carried out this type of destruction from the start of their march at Atlanta. Sherman ordered the destruction of the Confederate Printing Plant, the old South Carolina State House and the interior of the incomplete new State House.

Whatever the explanation, high winds whipped up the fires and caused the near-complete destruction of the city. Most of the central city was destroyed, and municipal fire companies found it difficult to operate in conjunction with the invading army, many of whom were also fighting the fire.

Gen. Sherman in his “Report on the Campaign of the Carolinas”, April 4, 1865 stated unequivocally that he only ordered the destruction of public buildings.

…In anticipation of the occupation of the city, I had made written orders to General Howard touching the conduct of the troops. These were to destroy, absolutely, all arsenals and public property not needed for our own use, as well as all railroads, depots, and machinery useful in war to an enemy, but to spare all dwellings, colleges, schools, asylums, and harmless private property. I was the first to cross the pontoon bridge, and in company with General Howard rode into the city. The day was clear, but a perfect tempest of wind was raging. 

Before one single public building had been fired by order, the smoldering fires, set by Hampton’s order, were rekindled by the wind, and communicated to the buildings around. About dark they began to spread, and got beyond the control of the brigade on duty within the city. The whole of Wood’s division was brought in, but it was found impossible to check the flames, which, by midnight, had become unmanageable, and raged until about four a.m., when the wind subsiding, they were got under control.

Whatever the explanation, Columbia, South Carolina was left in ruins when Sherman’s army moved North through the rest of the state and into North Carolina.



The Importance of Richmond

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Antebellum RichmondPeople who have little knowledge of antebellum America are always surprised at the close proximity of the Confederate capital of Richmond to the national capital of Washington, a mere 100 miles apart. The uninformed posit that perhaps the Southerners made Richmond their capital to spite the Northerners.

Once they begin to understand the pre-war economy of the South, it all becomes clearer. Many believe that the American Civil War was black and white. The see all Southerners as slaveowners and supporters of secession and all Northerners as abolitionists who support the Union unconditionally. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The American South was made up of three distinct regions: the Deep South, the Middle South and the Upper South. Richmond was the leading city of the Upper South. This region had evolved from a tobacco growing area into one with a diverse industrial economy.

Richmond was a transportation hub, as it is today, with major north-south and east-west roads bisecting the city. The city was also a major rail hub with rail lines radiating from the city in all directions. Richmond was the home of major industrial enterprises. Tobacco manufacturing and flour milling had dominated Richmond’s antebellum economy, but Confederate authorities were most interested in Tredegar Iron Works.

The city’s Tredegar Iron Works, the 3rd largest foundry in the United States at the start of the war, produced most of the Confederate artillery, including a number of giant rail-mounted siege cannons. The company also manufactured railroad locomotives, boxcars and rails, as well as steam propulsion plants and iron plating for warships. By the end of the war, it has been estimated that the Tredegar Iron Works made about 50% of the cannon used by the Confederacy.

Richmond had shipyards too, although they were smaller than the shipyards controlled by the Union in Norfolk, Virginia. Richmond’s factories also produced guns, bullets, tents, uniforms, harnesses, leather goods, swords, bayonets, and other war materiel. A number of textile plants, floor mills, brick factories, newspapers and book publishers were located in Richmond too. The city’s warehouses were the supply and logistical center for Confederate forces.

In 1864, Ordnance Bureau chief Josiah Gorgas noted that the Confederacy had become self-sufficient in the production of war matériel. This was remarkable considering that in 1860, the future states of the Confederacy had accounted for only 16 percent of the nation’s capital invested in manufacturing. Such an economic turnaround was largely due to the output of Richmond’s manufactories and especially the Tredegar Iron Works.

Richmond with its close proximity to the front defended by the Army of Northern Virginia became the main logistics and supply center for the Confederacy in the Eastern Theater. Lose Richmond and the Confederates would have lost the war. A capital can be moved but Richmond’s vital location and industrial muscle could not be relocated.

The goal of the Union government throughout the war was to capture Richmond and neutralize it as a Confederate military asset. From the first Tredegar Iron Worksdays of the war, the Northern newspaper proclaimed , “On to Richmond.” 

The Union Army of the Potomac attempted to capture the city in 1862. Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan led his massive army up the Virginia Peninsula from Fortress Monroe to withing 6 miles of the city. Union soldiers later said that they could see the church steeples and hear the bells ringing.

From late 1862 until the beginning of the Siege of Petersburg in mid-1864 Richmond was always the goal of the Union Army. All of the Union offensives were targeted for Richmond while all of the maneuvers of Robert E. Lee were his attempts to defend the city.

The Siege of Petersburg should be rightly called the Siege of Richmond and Petersburg. The almost 10-month siege was not really a siege in the classic sense where all of the roads and rail lines are cut off. The trench lines that eventually extended over 30 miles (48 km) from the eastern outskirts of Richmond to around the eastern and southern outskirts of Petersburg.

Many of the berms and earthwork fortifications remain today, nearly 150 years later. Richmond–Petersburg was a costly campaign for both sides. The initial assaults on Petersburg in June 1864 cost the Union 11,386 casualties, to approximately 4,000 for the Confederate defenders. The casualties for the siege warfare that concluded with the assault on Fort Stedman are estimated to be 42,000 for the Union, and 28,000 for the Confederates.

Finally, after four years of deadly combat, General Lee ordered his army to withdraw from both cities and retreated to the west where after losing more men at Five Forks and Sailor’s Creek he surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox.

In leaving the city, the Confederate government ordered the destruction of all remaining military supplies. Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, Richmond’s military commander, was under orders to destroy the city’s tobacco, cotton, and foodstuffs before the Union Army arrived. In order to destroy the tobacco, Ewell had it moved to buildings that he believed could burn without setting the rest of the city on fire and asked the fire department to stand by to keep the fire from spreading.

He was wrong and the fires grew out of control, burning the center of the city. Embers from the street fires of official papers and from the paper torches used by vandals drifted. The wind picked up. Another building caught fire. The business district caught fire. Worse, as Admiral Raphael The Burning of RichmondSemmes wrote, “The Tredegar Iron Works were on fire, and continual explosions of loaded shell stored there were taking place….The population was in a great state of alarm.”

Semmes had set his ironclads on fire to keep them out of Union hands. Moments later, the warships’ arsenals exploded blowing the windows out for two miles around, overturning tombstones, and tearing doors from their hinges.

Fortunately for the city, Union cavalry arrived on the morning of April 3rd. The Union commander, General Godfrey Weitzel, ordered his men to try to save the city and put out the fires. The city’s two fire engines worked, bucket brigades were formed. Threatened buildings were pulled down to create firebreaks. Five hours later the wind finally shifted, and they began to bring it under control.

All or part of at least 54 blocks were destroyed. Weitzel wrote “The rebel capitol, fired by men placed in it to defend it, was saved from total destruction by soldiers of the United States, who had taken possession.” For Richmond the war was finally over.


The End of Conciliation

This entry is part 11 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Throughout 1861 and well into 1862 conciliation was the official policy of the Lincoln administration. The hope was that the Confederate secessionists could be returned to the Union with a minimum of blood and destruction. In fact these hopes lasted right up to the repulse of McClellan’s advance on Richmond in the early summer of 1862.

In the space of the month of July Northern newspapers went from endorsing conciliation at the beginning of the month to publishing bitter editorials by the end of the month. The Lincoln administration realizing that their policy of conciliation would not work agreed. New orders were dispatched to the Union armies that called for the confiscation of Southern property. The armies were encouraged to live off the land as they moved through the Southern countryside.

Meanwhile, the Congress was debating a new and harsher confiscation bill proposed by Sen. Lyman Trumbull (R-IL). Put forward in December 1861 and debated for six months it called for the confiscation of all property, both real and personal, of anyone living where the rebellion made ordinary judicial proceedings impossible, provided that the owner was in arms against the Government or aiding in the rebellion. It also provided for the emancipation of the convicted person’s slaves and their transportation to a colony.

Supporters of conciliation within the Congress railed against the proposed bill as an indiscriminate assault against the rights of all Southerners, loyal or rebellious. Others denounced it as unconstitutional. Many said that it was bad policy. Their argument had been heard before, claiming that  the passage of the bill would turn any Union sentiment in the South into support for the Confederacy.

The Radical Republicans were having none of these arguments and insisted that the bill must be passed but in a stronger form than Trumbull’s draft. The bill was seen more as a vehicle for the emancipation of Southern slaves than anything else. On the other hand the War Democrats saw the bill as a necessary means to put down the rebellion. Both sides did agree that it was a means to punish the “landed proprietors” who they blamed for the rebellion.

After much debate the bill was referred to a select Senate committee who modified the bill to reflect some of the constitutional concerns of the moderate Republicans. The bill mandated that property could only be confiscated after an individual was convicted of inciting or engaging in rebellion. It permitted the President to emancipate the slaves of rebels who resided in areas still under rebellion six months after the bill’s passage. It also authorized the President to enlist blacks as soldiers. The bill was then sent to the House.

In the House the bill had a rockier time  and a select committee was formed in the hopes that it could break the various deadlocks. The House select committee reported out two bills. One dealt with confiscation, the other with emancipation. The confiscation bill was rejected outright by the Senate while the emancipation bill languished while it seemed that McClellan might capture Richmond and end the war.

In the Western Theater, Union forces had sliced deep into the Confederacy and by the end of May 1862 they had captured the strategic rail junction of Corinth, Mississippi. It seemed certain that with victories in both theaters the rebellion was about to be crushed. Then, the unexpected happened as it often does in war.

With the vast Union Army a mere five miles from Richmond the two armies fought a battle at Seven Pines. The Confederate commander General Joseph E. Johnston was severely wounded by shell fragments and was carried from the field. Jefferson Davis immediately appointed his military adviser General Robert E. Lee as his replacement.

The change in leadership of the Confederate Army in the field as a result of Seven Pines had a profound effect on the war. On June 24, 1862, McClellan’s massive Army of the Potomac was within 6 miles (9.7 km) of the Confederate capital of Richmond; Union soldiers wrote that they could hear church bells ringing in the city. Within 90 days, however, Robert E. Lee had driven McClellan from the Peninsula,Pope had been soundly beaten at the Second Battle of Bull Run, and the battle lines were 20 miles (32 km) from the Union capital in Washington.

Despite a string of victories, McClellan continued to withdraw south to the safety of Harrison’s Landing where he was supported by the guns of the Union Navy. It was here that he met with Lincoln and delivered to him a letter outlining his views on conciliation. But Lincoln simply ignored his letter and turned instead to military matters.

The President realized that the window for conciliation was rapidly closing and that the war had moved beyond that approach. The two houses of Congress finally came to a compromise agreement and presented the President with the bill which he signed on July 17, 1862. The bill because of its requirement that confiscation cases be tried in court did not severely damage the Southern economy.

However, it did accomplish two goals. It punished the Southern aristocracy who the Union Congress viewed as the ones who started the war. It was blow against slavery with its emancipation provisions. Most importantly, it signaled both the Southerners and the Union Army that the official policy of conciliation was ended.




Union Efforts at Conciliation: 1861

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series The Hard Hand of War

Fort Sumter in 1860One hundred and fifty two years after the start of the American Civil War many Americans are uneducated about the facts surrounding the war. In most people’s minds the war between the North and South was just that a war between two monolithic opponents. Today, many Americans are unaware of the anti-war sentiments that were circulating throughout both regions of the United States. They also do not understand that the Union government was hoping for conciliation before blood was spilled.

Not all Northerners were in favor of the war. Not all Southerners were in favor of the Confederacy. In fact, there were many regiments composed of white southerners and many African-American regiments that were recruited in the South.

This series of posts attempts to explain the Union government’s policy to the South; from conciliation to total war. This descent into the hell of total war was gradual and measured and took years to occur.

The Union government of Abraham Lincoln did not begin the war with the goal of destroying the South. On the contrary, they attempted to persuade the Southerners to return to the Union without the violence that would characterize the latter stages of the war.

The Lincoln administration’s early policy was to spare Southern civilians from the horrors of war. Their constitutional rights were to be respected and their property was not to be touched in the course of military combat.

At the start of the war the Lincoln administration specifically renounced any intention of attacking slavery. In fact, Abraham Lincoln himself articulated his policy as preserving the Union. Lincoln believed that most white Southerners were lukewarm about secession. After all, who wants their lives and livelihoods disrupted?

Many of the Northern officers in high commands agreed with the Lincoln government’s policy, although like the South there were some firebrands who called for the abolition of slavery as the main objective of the war.

Lincoln felt that the Union war effort must not be seen as a strictly Republican policy but a national one that spanned their entire spectrum of the northern political parties. He appointed a number of prominent Democrats as major generals in order to carry out his goal.

These Democrats were more conciliatory to their fellow Southern Democrats and therefore shaped the military strategy for the first fifteen months of the war.

The Lincoln administration and its high command attempted a number of things to try to draw the South back in the Union. On the one hand they continued to try conciliation. The General-in-Chief Winfield Scott was a believer in a non-confrontational approach to the South.

He was supported in this by the new Secretary of State William Seward who believed that if military confrontations could be avoided, then the latent Unionist sentiment across the South would rise to the surface and the Southern states would return to the Union.

Scott drafted a memorandum for the incoming administration that laid out four possible courses of action that they could take.

First, they could undertake a full-scale invasion of the South. Scott proposed a timeline of two or three years. He also felt that the Union government would need an army of 300,000 trained troops under a superior general. Approximately one-third would be needed for garrisons as the army moved further south.

Scott foresaw a frightful loss of life and the destruction of property throughout the region. In addition he forecast a staggering cost of some $250 million with only devastation to show for it.

His second option was some compromise like the Crittenden proposal that would return the Southern states to the Union under terms acceptable to them.

Scott’s third option was to close Southern ports to trade using a naval blockade and collect the duties on foreign goods from warships stationed off Southern harbors. Considering that the United States Navy had less than sixty ships, this option might take some time to implement.

His final option was simply to “say to the seceded States, Wayward Sisters, depart in peace.” This last was a non-starter for the Lincoln administration. In essence, they would have admitted defeat before a shot had been fired.

When the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861 any possibility of a peaceful resolution of the crisis ended. Lincoln promptly called for 75,000 volunteers to suppress the rebellion.

Besides cheering those in the North who favored the return of the seceded states to the Union, it triggered the secession of the four states of the Upper South. The sides were now set and the Union government began to plan its strategy.


The St. Albans Raid

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

The St. Albans RaidSt. Albans, Vermont is the last place one would expect to have a raid by Confederates during the latter part of the American Civil War. But on October 19, 1864, the quiet Vermont, border town was the site of a Confederate attempt to rob three town banks in the name of the Confederacy.

The idea of the raid originated in early 1864 when the Confederate Congress passed a bill that authorized a campaign of sabotage against “the enemy’s property, by land or sea.” The bill established a Secret Service fund—$5 million in U.S. dollars—to finance the sabotage.

As an incentive, saboteurs would get rewards proportional to the destruction they wreaked. One million dollars of that fund was specifically earmarked for use by agents in Canada. For some time, agents there had been plotting far more than across-the-border sabotage. They believed that their plans for large-scale covert actions could win the war.

Canada was then a British possession and was officially known as British North America. Though neutral and against slavery, the British support had been towards the Southern Confederacy, mainly due to King Cotton, a commodity that British mills craved.

There were a number of Confederate agents stationed in Canada. Some were native Southerners, like Captain Thomas Henry Hines, who had ridden with Morgan’s Raiders in guerrilla sorties into Kentucky and Tennessee. Others were disaffected Northerners who were opposed to the war and were known as “Copperheads.”

Confederate Raiders of St. AlbansThe Confederates especially recruited sympathizers from Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, where an estimated 40 percent of the population was Southern-born. Among them were military officers in civilian clothes and politicians, such as Jacob Thompson who had been Secretary of the Interior under President James Buchanan and Clement Clay, former U.S. Senator from Alabama. They were ostensibly “commissioners” sent to Canada with vaguely defined public roles as their cover.

Other politicians involved in plots were George N. Sanders, who had taken part in Confederate operations in Europe, and Clement L. Vallandigham, who had been a powerful member of Congress from Ohio. He claimed he had 300,000 Sons of Liberty ready to follow him in an insurrection that would produce a Northwest Confederacy.

After an aborted attempt to free Confederate prisoners on Johnson’s Island, near Sandusky, Ohio in Lake Erie, and at Fort Douglas in Chicago failed miserably, Confederate authorities in Canada came up with a new plan. Using escaped Confederate prisoners-of-war, they would infiltrate the small Vermont town of St. Albans, rob the three banks there and burn the town to the ground. The ostensible reason was retribution for Union attacks in the South.

The commander of the raid was Bennett H. Young, a Confederate cavalryman who had been captured  at the Battle of Salineville in Ohio ended Morgan’s Raid the year before. Young had escaped to Canada and then made his way back the South. Here he proposed raids on American border towns to rob banks in order to raise money for the depleted Confederate treasury. He was commissioned a lieutenant and returned to Canada.

In Canada the former cavalryman recruited other escaped prisoners and planned a raid on St. Albans, a small town about 15 miles south of the border. Eventually, he had 20 other raiders and in October, 1864, his plan commenced.

On October 10th, Young and two others checked into a local hotel, saying that they had come from St. John’s in Canada East for a “sporting vacation.” Every day, two or three more young men arrived. By October 19, there were 21 cavalrymen assembled.

At 3:00 PM on the 19th, the Confederate raiders struck, simultaneously robbing three local banks. They quickly collected $208,000. As the banks were being robbed, eight or nine of the Confederates held the townspeople prisoner on the village green as their horses were stolen. One towns person was killed and another wounded. Young ordered his men to burn the town down, but the four-ounce bottles of Greek fire they had brought failed to work, and only one shed was destroyed.

The raiders then made their way across the border back to Canada, where they were arrested by British authorities. A Canadian court decided that the soldiers were under military orders and that the officially neutral Canada could not extradite them to the United States. The Canadian court’s ruling that the soldiers were legitimate military belligerents and not criminals, as argued by American authorities, has been interpreted as a tacit British recognition of the Confederate States of America. The raiders were freed, but the $88,000 the raiders had on their person was returned to Vermont.

The leader of the raid, Bennett H. Young, was excluded from President Andrew Johnson’s amnesty proclamation. He would not return home until 1868. He spent time studying in Ireland and Scotland. After returning home, he became a prominent attorney in Louisville, Kentucky. His philanthropic works were legion. Young founded the first orphanage for blacks in Louisville, a school for the blind, and did much pro bono work for the poor. He also worked as a railroad officer, author, and National Commander of the United Confederate Veterans.


The Confederate Secret Service

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Spies of North and South

Confederate cipher wheelUnlike the Union government, the Confederate government did not find it necessary to organize a large force of detectives and spies for other than purely military purposes. They organized the Confederate Secret Service and employed it for purposes they considered purely military.

Meanwhile, the Union government had a need to send out agents in pursuit of bounty jumpers, men who were fraudulently discharged, traders in contraband goods, and contract fraudsters. This use of capable individuals throughout the North prevented their use against the Confederacy.

The Southern government had no such need and employed spies primarily to discover the movement of Union troops and supplies. Generals depended largely on the information they brought, in planning attack and in accepting or avoiding battle. It is indeed a notable fact that a Confederate army was never surprised in an important engagement of the war. They may have been overmatched on many occasions but were never surprised.

The Confederates used a systems of couriers between Richmond and a number of northern cities, including Washington, Baltimore, New York and Boston. Agents in these cities would insert personal ads in the newspapers using cipher code. Once the papers inevitably reached Richmond the ciphers were decoded and the information was routed the proper location.

Part of the Confederacy’s advantage was that the war was primarily conducted on Southern soil. The Confederates were able to intercept a great many Union couriers who were carrying particularly sensitive information. On July 4, 1861 Confederate pickets captured a Union courier who had the complete returns (rosters) of General Irvin McDowell’s Army of Virginia.

“His statement of the strength and composition of that force,” relates General P.G.T. Beauregard, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, “tallied so closely with that which had been acquired through my Washington agencies… that I could not doubt them… I was almost as well advised of the strength of the hostile army in my front as its commander.” 

Using this valuable information General Beauregard was able to position his troops accordingly and win the First Battle of Manassas. In the opening of the war, at least, the Confederate spy and scout system was far better developed than was the Federal.

As the war unfolded the use of spies, scouts and agents became more localized. Individual commanders used their own cadres of spies rather than receiving information the long way around from Richmond. This system was also used by the Union armies and was the most efficient use of military intelligence gathering.

In his Valley Campaign of 1862, General Stonewall Jackson achieved a brilliant series of victories. However, it is a known fact that although Jackson was a brilliant tactical commander the services of the scouts and spies under Colonel Turner Ashby played a key role in locating the Union forces. Meanwhile, the Union commanders had no such advantage.

As the war moved into 1864, the Confederate government felt the need to conduct secret operations in the North. Jefferson Davis called upon several prominent Southerners to conduct secret negotiations for peace with prominent Northerners, including Horace Greeley. However, their correspondence with Greeley became public and the negotiations failed.

The Confederate government attempted to use the Sons of Liberty, sometimes called the Copperheads, against the Union government. Led by Clement Vallandigham who had been exiled to the South in 1863, the Sons of Liberty were seen by the Confederate government as a counterweight to the Union central government.

The Sons of Liberty would detach the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio from the Union, if the Confederate authorities would, at the same time, move sufficient forces into Kentucky and Missouri to hold those lukewarm Federal States. These five states would then form the Northern Confederacy, compelling the Union government to stop the war.

The date for the general uprising was several times postponed, but finally settled for the 16th of August. Confederate officers were sent to various cities to direct the movement. Escaped Confederate prisoners were enlisted in the cause. Jacob Thompson, a Southern agent, furnished funds for perfecting county organizations. Arms were purchased in New York and secreted in Chicago.

The Confederate plot was revealed and many prominent members of the Sons of Liberty were arrested. The garrison at Camp Douglas, Chicago, was increased to seven thousand. The strength of the allies was deemed insufficient to contend with such a force, and the project was abandoned. The Confederates returned to Canada.

Throughout the fall and winter of 1864, the Confederate Secret Service conducted a series of operations in the North. St. Albans, Vermont is the last place one would expect to have a raid by Confederates during the latter part of the American Civil War. But on October 19, 1864, the quiet Vermont, border town was the site of a Confederate attempt to rob three town banks in the name of the Confederacy. It would end with the raiders being arrested by Canadian authorities and some of the stolen funds returned to the Vermont banks.

Then there was the attempted capture of the USS Michigan which was guarding Johnson’s Island and the release of the prisoners incarcerated there. It ended in failure with the execution of the Captain John Y. Beall of the Confederate navy for piracy and spying.

There was an attempt to fire the city of New York by Confederate agents and the Sons of Liberty on November 25, 1864. The incendiary “Greek Fire” that had been supplied to Confederate agents failed to ignite properly. The Confederates fled the city and returned to Canada. However, Robert Cobb Kennedy was captured and hanged on March 25, 1865.

Every Confederate plot in the North was fated to fail. The Federal secret service proved to be more than a match for the Sons of Liberty and the Confederates. The Confederate’s objectives included the cutting of telegraph wires, the seizure of banks, the burning of railroad stations, the appropriation of arms and ammunition and the freeing of thousands of Confederate prisoners from Camp Douglas in Chicago. Their operations were foiled by the Union secret service. Some 106 men were captured, tried and convicted of a variety of crimes.

The operations around Chicago were the last conducted in the North by the Confederate Secret Services. The agents either returned to Canada or made their way South where they arrived just in time for the surrender of the Confederacy and the end of the war.





Confederate Ordinance Factory Explosion in Richmond

Confederate Ordinance FactoryOn March 13, 1863 a massive explosion rocked the Richmond Confederate Ordinance Factory on Brown’s Island in the James River. More than 40 workers were killed and many others were burned. Some reports place the casualties at 60 killed.

This type of disaster is usually lost in the overwhelming numbers of killed and wounded of America’s most deadly war but the 150th anniversary was a time to commemorate this tragedy.

The Ordinance Laboratory was opposite the Tredegar Iron Works, the largest cannon factory in the Confederacy which made about half of the cannon used by the Confederate Army in the American Civil War. The factory manufactured ammunition and primers for cannon ammunition.

Up the hill from the cannon works was the Confederate States Armory where small arms were manufactured. By placing it on the island, Confederate authorities kept the dangerous manufacturing at a safe distance from the capital of the Confederacy.

Most of the workers were Irish immigrants. They were among 2,200 Irish-born residents of the city of 37,000 in 1860. The victims were young, some pre-teen, others in their 20s. “They were like 11, 12, 13, 15. They wanted them to work at Brown’s Island because they had small fingers and they could do the work and they were immigrants and having a job in America as opposed to subsistence living in Ireland seemed to be a good deal,” said Dan Begley of the Irish American Society.

The explosion was precipitated by a worker named Mary Ryan accidently ignited a friction primer. An account in the Richmond Examiner reported that “a dull, prolonged roar” echoed from Brown’s Island, attracting “frantic mothers and kindred of the employees of in the laboratory” to the banks of the James. The building was “blown into a complete wreck, the roof lifted off, and the walls dashed out…” the newspaper reported.
Those responding to the explosion were met with the horror of what had just happened: the dead being carried from the smoldering remains and the near-dead “suffering the most horrible agonies, blind from burns, with hair burned from their heads, and the clothing hanging in burning shreds…”

Despite the horrific explosion and fire production at the factory was only halted for a brief period of time. After repairs were made, production in ammunition resumed.





The Flags of the Confederate States of America

The Flags of the Confederate States of America

Flags are important symbols of a nation and many people have died throughout history to protect them. The people of the Confederacy were no exception. The Confederate States of America used a number of different flags during its brief four-year existence.

Stars and Bars FlagThe first banner of the Confederacy was alternately known as the Stars and Bars flag or the First National flag. It had seven white stars on a blue field and two horizontal red stripes flanking one white stripe. Each star signified one of the states that had seceded at the time it was adopted.

It was raised for the first time over the Capital Building in Montgomery, Alabama at sunrise on March 4, 1861 by the granddaughter of President John Tyler of Virginia. As additional states seceded and joined the Confederacy additional stars were added to it; first 9 stars, then 11 and finally 13. The last two stars represented Kentucky and Missouri, two states that never actually seceded. It was designed by Prussian artist Nicola Marschall in Marion, Alabama. It is now used by the United Daughters of the Confederacy with 13 stars on the blue field.

Battle Flag of the ConfederacyAt the Battle of First Manassas on July 21, 1861 there was a great deal of confusion by officers of both armies because of the flags and uniforms that were used by each side. Neither were very uniform. General P.G.T. Beauregard became rather confused because he could not distinguish between the Stars and Bars and the Stars and Stripes through the dust and haze.

After the battle the Confederacy created a Battle Flag to eliminate any future confusion. The flag had a red field and a blue “X” with 12 stars. The 13th star was added later. It was adopted in September 1861. It had three sizes: infantry size was 52 x 52″, artillery size was 38 x 38″ and cavalry size was 32 x 32″.

The Stainless BannerThe “Stainless” Banner or the Second National flag was adopted on May 1, 1863 in order to eliminate the continuing confusing with the United States’ Stars and Stripes. It was pure white, hence the “Stainless” name, with the Battle Flag in the upper left corner.

The initial reaction to this new standard was favorable but over time there were criticisms that it was “too white”. There was concern among military officers that it could be mistaken for a flag of truce. They also had the more mundane complaint that it was easily soiled.

Third National FlagThe Stainless Banner was followed by the “Blood Stained” Banner or the Third National Flag. This flag was adopted on March 4, 1865, just 35 days before General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House. The “Blood Stained” Banner was the “Stainless” Banner with a broad vertical red stripe on the right end. Its proponents reiterated the argument of the flag of truce. This confusion would be eliminated by the broad red stripe.

The Confederate Congress adjourned shortly after voting for this flag and it was not made until its design was found among the Records of the Confederate government. Today, this design is used by the Sons of Confederate Veterans as their standard.

The Bonnie Blue FlagThe Bonnie Blue Flag has an obscure origin. It seems to have been carried by the troops who were fighting for Texas independence. Early in 1861 it was carried by supporters of secession in the streets of Montgomery, Alabama during the first session of the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy.

It became famous after the song that written and performed by Harry McCarthy in New Orleans. Apparently a number of Texas volunteers were in the audience and liked the song immensely.

The Confederacy had numerous other banners that were used by various units of the Confederate States Army. Each state in the Confederacy had their own individual flag, some of which were variations of the Confederate States flag. Today, we have a continuing controversy over the use of the Confederate Battle Flag by both states and individuals. Let us remember that for many Americans these flags represent their ancestors who fought and in some cases died for their beliefs.






Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln like most distinguished men had several personas. The young Lincoln was a frontiersman who lived in the outdoors and became known as a formidable axeman. He experimented in his early career choices, trying jobs as a storekeeper, postmaster and county surveyor. As he progressed in life he became a politician Abraham Lincolnand office holder both at the state and the national level. Simultaneously, he became a superb lawyer who represented clients large and small. Finally, Lincoln as President became a great War Leader who led the Union to victory in the American Civil War.

Abraham Lincoln, the man who was to become the 16th President of the United States, was born on February 12, 1809 in a one-room log cabin on the Sinking Spring Farm in southeast Hardin County, Kentucky (now LaRue County). He was the second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln. His father enjoyed some status in Kentucky being a landowner but in 1816 they lost everything due to a faulty land title. Thomas moved his family across the Ohio River into Perry County, Indiana. Indiana was free territory while Kentucky allowed slavery. In 1818 Abraham’s 34-year-old mother Nancy died of the milk sickness, after drinking the milk of an infected cow. His older sister, Sarah, died in childbirth. Soon after his wife’s death Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston, whom Lincoln became very close to and called “Mother”. It is said that Sarah inculcated the love of reading in Lincoln.

As a young man Lincoln became quite proficient with an axe, splitting rails for fencing. Thomas moved his family to several locations in Illinois in 1830 and 1831. At 22 Lincoln struck out on his own moving to New Salem in Sangamon County, Illinois. In that same year he was hired to take goods to New Orleans for a local businessman. Arriving in New Orleans Lincoln for the first time witnessed slavery.

Lincoln’s formal education consisted of approximately 18 months of classes from several itinerant teachers. He was mostly self-educated and was an avid reader. He gained a reputation for brawn and audacity after a very competitive wrestling match to which he was challenged by the renowned leader of a group of ruffians, “the Clary’s Grove boys”. There were some in his family, and in the neighborhood, who considered him to be lazy. Lincoln avoided hunting and fishing out of an aversion to killing animals, an interesting trait for someone who lived on the frontier.

Lincoln had several romantic attachments in the 1830’s. The first, Ann Rutledge, died in 1835 from typhoid fever. The second romance with Mary Owens of Kentucky eventually petered out for lack of interest. In 1839 he met Mary Todd, the daughter of a wealthy slave-holding family from Lexington, Kentucky. The became engaged in December 1840 but the scheduled wedding was cancelled. The later met at a party in Springfield, Illinois. They became engaged again and married on November 4, 1842. The Lincolns had four sons: Robert, Edward, William and Thomas. Only Robert lived beyond 18 years of age.

Lincoln had several jobs in his early life. By his early 20’s he had attained his full height of 6 feet 4 inches and was known as a man of great strength. In 1832 he and a partner started a general store in New Salem but eventually he sold his share. Lincoln served as a captain in the militia during the brief Black Hawk War. In the same year he ran for the Illinois General Assembly but came in eighth of thirteen (four were elected). He later served as New Salem’s postmaster and after more self-education became a county surveyor. In 1834 Lincoln ran for the legislature as a Whig and was elected. Lincoln then decided to become a lawyer and learned by studying Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England and other law books. Admitted to the Illinois bar in 1836 he Young Abraham Lincolnmoved to Springfield, the state capitol to practice under John T. Stuart, Marry Todd’s cousin. Lincoln was a successful lawyer being skilled on cross-examination and closing arguments. In 1841 he partnered with Stephen Logan and in 1844 began his partnership with William Herndon. (Today, you can visit their law office directly across the street from the Old State Capitol in Springfield.)

During these years Lincoln developed the political philosophy he was to espouse for the rest of his life. He served four successive terms in the Illinois House of Representatives as a Whig representative from Sangamon County. In the 1835-1836 session he voted to expand suffrage to all white males, whether landowners or not. He was known as a “free soiler” who was opposed to slavery and was a follower of Henry Clay, who was in favor of freeing the slaves and returning them to Liberia in Africa.

In 1846 Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives where he served one two-year term. He was the only Whig in the Illinois delegation. He developed a plan for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia but he dropped it for lack of support. He opposed President Polk’s Mexican War as a desire for “military glory—that attractive rainbow, that rises in showers of blood”. He introduced his Spot Resolutions, demanding to know the spot where American blood had been shed. It was this pretext that Polk had used start the war.

Lincoln supported Zachery Taylor for President in the election of 1846. Taylor won and Lincoln was hoping for the position of Commissioner of the General Land Office but a political rival received it instead. He was offered a lesser position in Oregon Territory that he turned down. Lincoln returned to his law practice in Springfield. He practiced all types of criminal and civil law, eventually becoming an expert in transportation cases: initially, riverboats and later, railroads. In 1849 he received a patent for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow. He is the only president to hold a patent. Lincoln appeared before the Illinois Supreme Court in 175 cases, in 51 as sole counsel, of which 31 were decided in his favor. From 1853 to 1860, another of Lincoln’s largest clients was the Illinois Central Railroad.

In 1854 Lincoln began to be a player on the national stage with the issue of slavery. Lincoln returned to politics to Senator Stephen A. Douglasoppose the pro-slavery Kansas–Nebraska Act (1854); this law repealed the slavery-restricting Missouri Compromise (1820). He rose in opposition to Senator Stephen A. Douglas who was in favor of the new bill. On October 16, 1854 Lincoln declared his opposition to slavery with his famous Peoria Speech.

In 1854 Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate as a Whig. In those days Senators were elected by the state legislatures. After six ballots Lincoln instructed his supporters to switch to another candidate who eventually won. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had split the Whig party and Lincoln was instrumental in the formation of the new Republican Party from remnants of the Whig Party, disenchanted members of the Free Soil, Liberty and Democratic parties. In 1856 the Republicans nominated John C. Fremont. Lincoln came in second in the vice-presidential balloting. Fremont ran under the slog: “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, Frémont!” James Buchanan was elected as the 15th President of the United States.

Events began to cascade starting from the from the election. In March 1857, the Supreme Court issued its controversial decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford; Chief Justice Roger B. Taney opined that blacks were not citizens, and derived no rights from the Constitution. Lincoln strongly disagreed with the Court’s opinion.   This put an end to his past deference to the Court’s authority. After his nomination for the U.S Senate by the Illinois state Republican Party, Lincoln gave his famous House Divided speech. In it he said:

A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new — North as well as South.

This set the stage for the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. On February 27, 1860, New York party leaders invited Lincoln to give a speech at Cooper Union to a group of powerful Republicans. Lincoln argued that the Founding Fathers had little use for popular sovereignty and had repeatedly sought to restrict slavery. Lincoln insisted the moral foundation of the Republicans required opposition to slavery, and rejected any “groping for some middle ground between the right and the wrong”

The die was cast. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was first to secede from the Union. By February 1, 1861, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas followed suit. These states adopted a constitution and declared themselves to be a sovereign nation, the Confederate States of America. The upper South (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Missouri, and Arkansas) listened to, but initially rejected, the secessionist appeal. The national authorities refused to recognize the new nation. The Confederacy selected Jefferson Davis as their provisional President on February 9, 1861. The first capitol of the Confederacy was Montgomery, Alabama.

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States on March 4, 1861. He directed his inaugural speech to the southern states telling them: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies … The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they Fort Sumterwill be, by the better angels of our nature.” It was to no avail. On April 12, 1861 the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor and the war that would last for four long years and causes tens of thousands of casualties had begun. Three days later Lincoln made his first call to the states for 75,000 volunteers. In short order Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina and Tennessee voted to secede. Kentucky, Maryland Missouri and Delaware remained with the Union. The western counties of Virginia seceded from Virginia and on June 20, 1863 the Mountain State was born.

The rest of Abraham Lincoln’s life was tied up in governing and leading the Union in the greatest war this continent has ever seen. As we detail this struggle the rest of his life will unfold.