American Civil War
Justice exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.
Today is the 204th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. One of the many things I find fascinating about Lincoln is his view of the Civil War, a view which is not much considered these days. Lincoln viewed it simply as a punishment for the sin of slavery. Lincoln put this idea forth clearly in a letter to Albert Hodges on April 4, 1864. Hodges was the editor of the Frankfort Commonwealth in Kentucky and Lincoln was explaining why he had found it necessary to adopt a policy of Emancipation and to enlist black troops, neither policy being popular in Kentucky or any of the border states. At the close of the letter Lincoln disclaimed that he had controlled the events which had led to his embracing abolition as a war goal:
I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years struggle the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man devised, or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.
God was willing the removal of slavery and gave the War as a punishment to both North and South for the sin of slavery. This was not a spur of the moment thought by Lincoln, but rather the fruit of much anguished contemplation as to why the War came and what it meant. Continue reading
Continuing on with our examination of the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, the first part of which may be read here, we turn to Jefferson Davis and the suspension of habeas corpus in the Confederacy. The Confederate Constitution provided for the suspension of habeas corpus:
Sec. 9 (3) The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.
On February 27, 1862 the Confederate Congress vested in Davis the power to suspend Habeas Corpus. On March 1, 1862 Davis used this power, suspending the writ of Habeas Corpus and declaring martial law in a ten-mile radius around the City of Richmond.
Davis would use this power throughout the War, especially in regions where Unionist sentiment was strong, for example in East Tennessee where martial law was imposed and the writ of habeas corpus suspended in 1862. Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago last Saturday, President Abraham Lincoln sent what is doubtless the most unusual letter ever sent by an American president to an American general:
Executive Mansion Washington, January 26, 1863
Major General Hooker: General.
I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac. Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons. And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which, I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and a skilful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is a valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. But I think that during Gen. Burnside’s command of the Army, you have taken counsel of your ambition, and thwarted him as much as you could, in which you did a great wrong to the country, and to a most meritorious and honorable brother officer. I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. The government will support you to the utmost of it’s ability, which is neither more nor less than it has done and will do for all commanders. I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you. I shall assist you as far as I can, to put it down. Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.
And now, beware of rashness. Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.
Yours very truly
A. Lincoln Continue reading
There is nothing like it on this side of the infernal region. The peculiar corkscrew sensation that it sends down your backbone under these circumstances can never be told. You have to feel it.
A Union soldier in 1861 on the rebel yell.
A tribute to the courage with which Confederate soldiers fought their lopsided fight for independence was the fear inspired in Union ranks when they heard the high pitched wail of the Rebel yell. It is a pity that sound recordings were more than a decade in the future at the time of the Civil War. We do have recordings of Confederate veterans screeching the yell, but they would invariably state that it was only a pale reflection of what the yell sounded like during the War. Financier Bernard Baruch recalled how his father, a surgeon who had served in the Confederate Army, would let loose with it whenever he heard Dixie:
As soon as the tune started Mother knew what was coming and so did we boys. Mother would catch him by the coattails and plead, ‘Shush, Doctor, shush’. But it never did any good. I have seen Father, ordinarily a model of reserve and dignity, leap up in the Metropolitan Opera House and let loose that piercing yell. Continue reading
“Non nobis Domine! non nobis sed nomini tuo da gloriam.”
General William S. Rosecrans at the end of his report on the battle of Stones River, attributing the Union victory to God.
An unjustly obscure battle of the Civil War began 150 years ago today: Stones River. Based on the number of combatants involved, it was the bloodiest battle fought in an extremely bloody War. The two armies involved, the Union Army of the Cumberland and the Confederate Army of Tennessee, were struggling for control of middle Tennessee. If the Confederate Army of Tennessee could be chased out of middle Tennessee, then Union control of Nashville was secure, and it could be used as a springboard for the conquest of southeastern Tennessee and the eventual invasion of Georgia. If the Union Army of the Cumberland could be defeated, then Nashville might fall, and the Confederate heartland be secured from invasion. The stakes were high at Stones River. A critical factor for the Union was that morale in the North was plummeting. The Army of the Potomac had suffered a shattering defeat a few weeks before at Fredericksburg, and Grant and his Army of the Tennessee seemed to be stymied by the Confederate fortress city of Vicksburg. The War for the Union seemed to be going no place at immense cost in blood and treasure. If the Army of the Cumberland led by General Rosecrans was defeated, voices raised in the North to “let the erring sisters go” might swell into a chorus that would lead eventually to a negotiated peace, especially after election losses for the Republicans in the Congressional elections already demonstrated deep dissatisfaction in the North as to the progress of the War.
General Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland out of Nashville the day after Christmas and marched southeast 40 miles to challenge the Army of Tennessee at Murfreesboro. The armies were comparable in size with the Army of the Cumberland having 41,000 men opposed to the 35,000 of the Army of the Tennessee. Both Rosecrans and Bragg planned to attack the opposing army by attacking its right flank. On December 31, Bragg struck first.
Confederate General William J. Hardee led his corps in a slashing attack at 8:00 AM against General Alexander M. McCook’s corps, and by 10:00 AM had chased the Union troops back three miles before they rallied. Rosecrans cancelled the attack against the Confederate right by General Thomas L. Crittenden’s corps, and rushed reinforcements to his embattled right. Confederate General Leonidas Polk, an Episcopalian bishop in civilian life, launched simultaneous attacks against the left of McCook’s corp. Here General Phil Sheridan’s division put up a stout resistance, but was eventually driven back.
By late morning the Union army had its back to Stones River and its line perpendicular on its right to its original position. Rosecrans, who seemed to be everywhere on the battlefield that day, succeeded in rallying his troops. The left of the Union line held against repeated assaults, the fiercest fighting centering on a four-acre wooded tract, known until the battle as the Round Forest, held by Colonel William B. Hazen’s brigade. The ferocity of the fighting can be judged by the fact that after the battle the tract of land would ever be known as Hell’s Half Acre. The Union forces held and by 4:30 PM. winter darkness brought an end to that day’s fighting.
Rosecrans held a council of war that night to determine if the army should stand or retreat. General George H. Thomas who had led his corps in the center with his customary skill and determination made the laconic comment that “There is no better place to die” and Rosecrans readily agreed. The Army of the Cumberland would stand and fight. Continue reading
Outside of his family, General William S. Rosecrans had three great passions in his life: His religion, Roman Catholicism, to which he had converted as a cadet at West Point, the Army and the Union. In the Civil War all three passions coincided. Rising to the rank of Major General and achieving command of the Army of the Cumberland, until he was removed in the aftermath of the Union defeat at Chickamauga, Rosecrans conducted himself in the field as if he were a Crusader knight of old.
Raised a Methodist, Rosecrans’ conversion was a life long turning point for him. He wrote to his family with such zeal for his new-found faith that his brother Sylvester began to take instruction in the Faith. Sylvester would convert, become a priest, and eventually be the first bishop of Columbus, Ohio.
His most precious possession was his Rosary and he said the Rosary at least once each day. In battle the Rosary would usually be in his hand as he gave commands. He had a personal chaplain, Father Patrick Treacy, who said Mass for him each morning and would busy himself the rest of the day saying masses for the troops and helping with the wounded. In battle he exposed himself to enemy fire ceaselessly as he rode behind the General. Rosecrans, after military matters were taken care of, delighted in debating theology with his staff officers late into the evening. Continue reading
But he, desirous of justifying himself, said to Jesus, And who is my neighbour?
Richard Rowland Kirkland is a name that should be cherished by every American. On December 14, 1862 he was a sergeant in Company G, 2nd South Carolina. It was approaching noon and his unit was stationed at the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights overlooking Fredericksburg. His unit had helped smash Union attack after Union attack the day before, and now he looked over fields strewn with wounded and dead Union soldiers. He could hear the wounded Union soldiers crying out desperately for water.
Unable to bear the cries any longer, he approached Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw and informed him of what he wanted to do. Kershaw gave him his permission, but told him he was unable to authorize a flag of truce. Kirkland said that was fine and he would simply have to take his chances. Gathering up all the canteens and blankets he could carry, Kirkland slipped over the wall, realizing that without a flag of truce it was quite possible he would be fired upon by Union troops.
Kirkland began to give drinks to Union wounded and blankets to protect them from the cold. Union troops, recognizing what he was doing, did not fire at him. For an hour and a half Kirkland went back and forth tending to the enemy wounded. He did not stop until he had assisted all Union wounded in the Confederate portion of the battlefield. The last Union soldier he assisted he gave his own overcoat. He was repeatedly cheered by both Union and Confederate soldiers. Continue reading
“Your soldier’s heart almost stood still as he watched those sons of Erin fearlessly rush to their deaths. The brilliant assault on Marye’s Heights of their Irish brigade was beyond description. We forgot they were fighting us and cheer after cheer at their fearlessness went up all along our lines!”
Confederate Major General George Pickett in a letter to his fiance
A moving video of the Irish Brigade at the battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862, based on the movie Gods and Generals. It was criminal military malpractice for Burnside, perhaps the most incompetent general in the war, to assault the fortified Confederate positions, but his idiocy does not derogate in the slightest from the extreme heroism of the Union troops who suffered massive casualties while attempting to do the impossible.
The Irish Brigade was one of the units called upon that day to do the impossible. One of the regiments in the Brigade was the 69th New York, the Fighting 69th as they would be designated by Robert E. Lee for their gallant charge at this battle, a unit faithful readers of this blog are quite familiar with. This day their chaplain personally blessed each man in the regiment. They called him Father Thomas Willett. That was as close as they could get to pronouncing his actual name.
Thomas Ouellet, a French Canadian Jesuit, fit perfectly among a regiment of tough Irishmen. Normally mild mannered and kind, he could react sternly to sin or to any injustice done to “his boys”. Abbe Ouellet had been with the regiment from its formation at the beginning of the war. During the battles of the Seven Days of the Peninsular Campaign earlier in 1862, he had barely slept as he tirelessly tended the wounded and gave the Last Rites to the dying. After the battle of Malvern’s Hill, he traversed the battlefield all night with a lantern after the Union army had withdrawn, seeking wounded to help and dying to save. He was captured by Confederates, who, learning he was a priest, treated him with kindness and swiftly released him. Continue reading
“It can hardly be in human nature for men to show more valor or generals to manifest less judgment, than were perceptible on our side that day.”
Cincinnati Commercial in a report on the battle of Fredericksburg
Fredericksburg I think is the absolute nadir of Union fortunes in the Civil War. After the sacking of McClellan, Major General Ambrose Burnside came up with a plan that wasn’t bad. Burnside would take the Confederates by surprise by crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg and then racing the Army of Northern Virgnia to Richmond. Burnside arrived opposite Fredericksburg on November 17 and he had stolen a March on Lee. Unbelievably the pontoon bridges were nowhere to be found, bungling of an almost preternatural nature being responsible for not placing them at the front of the Union advance. Burnside sat on the river across from Fredericksburg for almost a month while Lee fortified the heights outside Fredericksburg. The key for the success of the plan, surprise, had vanished. Lee was present and in an immensely strong position. It made absolutely no sense for Burnside now to cross at Fredericksburg and initiate a battle and yet that is what he did. Continue reading