American Civil War
During this sesquicentennial of the War Between the States a very old question arises: What was the impact of John Wilkes Booth on the outcome of the War Between the States? My response is none.
The assassination of Lincoln by Booth certainly shocked the nation. A President had never been assassinated before, and to have it happen while the President was at ease, enjoying a play at Ford’s Theater, added an element of the grotesque that magnified the horror. Booth, unknown to all but his closest intimates, had been a Confederate sympathizer throughout the War. Whether his murder of Lincoln was an act of impulse or a carefully planned conspiracy remains a subject of heated debate. Nevertheless, whether he decided that evening or after days or weeks of deliberation, Booth, using two pistols, ended the life of Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln and his entourage occupying a theater box on stage, and presenting a target that Booth could not, and did not, miss. Booth himself being shot to death immediately thereafter ensured that he took whatever planning he engaged in with him to the grave, and made this assassination an endless source of conspiracy theorists ever thereafter. The aptly named play The Marble Heart, starring Booth, will remain forever etched in American memory, along with the date of November 9, 1863 when the first president of the United States to be assassinated died.
Hannibal Hamlin, forgotten Vice-President, thus became President. On his narrow shoulders many have heaped blame for the defeat of the Union. Rubbish! A careful examination of the historical record reveals that he acted in a way almost certainly no different than Lincoln likely would have. Continue reading
Thomas E. Marshall, Vice-President under Wilson, summed up the historical fate of most Vice-Presidents in this joke he used to tell: There were two brothers. One was lost at sea and one became Vice-President. Neither were heard from again. That was certainly the case with Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first Vice-President. In an administration where almost everything has been examined endlessly by tens of thousands of historians with magnifying glasses, Hamlin is a complete void. At the time Hamlin knew that he simply did not count in the Administration, although Lincoln was cordial on the rare occasions they met. I am the fifth wheel of a coach is how Hamlin described his non-role in shaping the affairs of the nation during his term as Vice-President.
The most prominent politician from Maine, both before and after his term as Vice-President, perhaps Hamlin regretted his four years in political oblivion as Lincoln’s Veep.
Hamlin began his political career in 1836 when he won election to Maine’s house of representatives as a Democrat. Serving in the Federal House of Representatives in 1843-47. Appointed to serve out a term in the US Senate in 1848, Hamlin elected to a full term in his own right in 1851. In 1856 he became a national celebrity when he broke with the Democrat party over slavery, and joined the Republicans. Elected as a Republican as Governor of Maine in 1856 and serving briefly, he resigned to take up a seat next year as a Republican, being one of the few members of the Senate to serve in that body as both a Democrat and a Republican.
He was placed on the Presidential ticket for regional balance and for the fame he had won as a former Democrat who left the party over slavery, a natural vote getter among anti-slavery Democrats. Hamlin and Lincoln did not meet for the first time until after the election. During the campaign Democrats spread the rumor that Hamlin was a mulatto. Hamlin did have a swarthy complexion, but there was no truth in the allegation. The same charge was made against Lincoln, racism being a weapon wielded freely by Democrats in both 1861 and 1864.
Hamlin as Veep advocated Emancipation and the use of black troops. Less presciently, he also supported placing Fighting Joe Hooker in command of the Army of the Potomac. Hamlin was left off the ticket in 1864 in order to broaden the ticket. Hamlin was firmly associated now with the radical wing of the Republican Party, and Lincoln believed that a War Democrat would be a better choice in what was likely to be a close contest. Andrew Johnson thus ultimately became President and Hamlin missed his opportunity to be something other than an historical footnote. Continue reading
I can’t spare this man, he fights!
Lincoln’s response to calls for Grant’s removal from command after Shiloh.
Few men in American history have had a more meteoric rise than Ulysses S. Grant. In March 1861 at age 38 he was a clerk in a tanning store owned by his father. A former Army officer, he was a complete failure in trying to support his family, going from one unsuccessful business venture to the next. He had a happy marriage, and that was fortunate, because that appeared to be the only success he was going to enjoy in this world.
A scant three years later he was general-in-chief of the vast Union armies, and on this day 150 years ago the Senate confirmed the nomination of Lincoln to make Grant Lieutenant General, a rank only held before Grant by two men: George Washington and Winfield Scott.
Whatever 1864 would bring for the Union in regard to the Civil War was largely up to Grant and the plans and decisions he would make. Skeptical men and officers of the Army of the Potomac, who assumed Grant would lead them in the upcoming campaign, remarked that only time would tell whether the first name of this latest commander would be Ulysses or Useless. North and South, most Americans realized that 1864 would likely be the decisive year of the War. At this pivot point in their history all Americans looked at the failure from Galena, Illinois, who now had the destiny of two nations in his hands, and wondered what he would do with this completely unexpected role on the stage of History that Fate, and Grant’s innate ability as a soldier, had bestowed upon him. Continue reading
One of the more hare-brained schemes of the Civil War, a cavalry raid towards Richmond with 4,000 Union troopers under Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick, a reckless blustering officer fully deserving of his nickname “Kill-Cavalry”, began on February 28, 1864. Colonel Ulric Dahlgren’s brigade was detailed to penetrate the Richmond defenses, ostensibly to free Union prisoners. The raid ended in a complete fiasco on March 2, with 324 of the raiders killed or wounded, and 1000 taken prisoner.
Among the dead was Dahlgren. The Confederates found two interesting documents on his body, including one that contained this sentence:
“The men must keep together and well in hand, and once in the city it must be destroyed and Jeff. Davis and Cabinet killed.”
The sentence was part of two pages written by Dahlgren, which appear to be instructions for his men. The other document was a speech to his men which contained this sentence:
‘We hope to release the prisoners from Belle Island first & having seen them fairly started we will cross the James River into Richmond, destroying the bridges after us & exhorting the released prisoners to destroy & burn the hateful City & do not allow the Rebel Leader Davis and his traitorous crew to escape.’
The Confederates made huge propaganda hay out of this and were justifiably outraged. Calls went out to hang the raiders, a call successfully resisted by General Robert E. Lee. The Union denounced the alleged documents as forgeries, but after the fall of Richmond, Secretary of War Stanton made certain that the documents were brought to him, and they were never seen again, although the Confederates had made photographs of them, so we know their contents. Continue reading
I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of. During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, POWs were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food. The worst by far was Andersonville. The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons. Continue reading
One hundred and fifty years ago Union prisoners began arriving at the Andersonville prison camp. A blot on American honor is the callous way in which many prisoners of war were treated during our Civil War, north and south. (For a Union prison camp that had a death rate of 25%, google Elmira prison camp, or as the Confederates imprisoned there referred to it, Helmira.) 45,000 Union soldiers would be held at Andersonville and 13,000 of them would die through starvation, bad water, no sanitation and disease. Accounts of what went on inside Andersonville beggar description. Jesus wept, sums up the reaction of any decent soul to this abomination. See the accompanying post for today for the grim details, and for a shining example of humanity by a man motivated by God’s love to love his enemies.
It is quite easy to assume that of the many victories won by General Nathan Bedford Forrest during the Civil War, the saddest for him was that of Okolona where his brother Colonel Jeffrey Forrest was killed leading a charge of his brigade. As General Forrest himself observed: War means fighting and fighting means killing.
As part of Sherman’s drive to take Meridian, Mississippi, read about that campaign here, Major General William Sooy Smith led 7,000 cavalry out of Memphis to rendezvous with Sherman at Meridian. But Smith got off to a late start, and Sherman, waiting for Smith for five days at Meridian, marched out of Meridian on February 20, 1864. Smith, learning of this, headed back north towards Okolona, Mississippi, pursued by Forrest. The pursuit was classic Forrest. Outnumbered three to one, and short of ammunition, it was of course Forrest who was pursuing Smith! Late on February 20, Forrest skirmished with Smith’s force at Prairie Station and Aberdeen, which hastened Smith’s retreat.
At dawn on February 22, on the prairie south of Okolona, Forrest opened the attack on Smith’s force, which had dismounted and prepared field fortifications. Forrest’s frontal attack and flank probes quickly cause the Union troopers to retreat, abandoning five cannon. The Federals reformed on a ridge, where Colonel Forrest received his mortal wound. Forrest rushed to his brother, and cradling him in his arms cried “Jeffrey! Jeffrey!”. He then told his adjutant to look after his brother’s body, and led the charge which swept the Union cavalry into headlong retreat, Forrest personally killing three Union soldiers in close combat. Forrest pursued the retreating Federals for eleven miles.
The defeat was considered a vast humiliation for the Union Army and General Smith resigned from the Army before the year was out. Here is the report of Forrest on the battle: Continue reading
Mr. Lincoln took advantage of the winter lull in the War on February 9, 1864 to go, along with his son Tad, to Mathew Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery in Washington DC to have his picture taken. The manager of the Gallery was Anthony Berger who took the photographs that day.
The above picture was immensely popular after Lincoln’s death, showing the closeness between Lincoln and Tad. Sadly, Tad would only outlive his father by six years, dying suddenly at 18, his death being variously ascribed to tuberculosis, pleurisy and congestive heart failure.
The above profile shot was taken by Lincoln that day and served as the basis for the image on the Lincoln penny. Continue reading
Something for the weekend. In 1963 the Robert Shaw Chorale released an album This Is My Country that had songs from American history. The above is the Civil War medley for the South and below is the Civil War medley for the North:
During World War II the Treasury sponsored radio salutes to great Americans of history. The above video is their salute to Edwin Booth.
Perhaps the finest American Shakespearian actor of his day, Booth was the son of Junius Brutus Booth, most assuredly the finest American Shakespearian actor of his day, and the brother of John Wilkes Booth. Junius Brutus Booth threatened to assassinate President Andrew Jackson, read about it here, and John Wilkes Booth of course did assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Edwin Booth, who supported the Union as much as his brother did the Confederacy, saved the life of Robert Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln in late 1864 or early 1865. Lincoln recalled the incident in 1909:
The incident occurred while a group of passengers were late at night purchasing their sleeping car places from the conductor who stood on the station platform at the entrance of the car. The platform was about the height of the car floor, and there was of course a narrow space between the platform and the car body. There was some crowding, and I happened to be pressed by it against the car body while waiting my turn. In this situation the train began to move, and by the motion I was twisted off my feet, and had dropped somewhat, with feet downward, into the open space, and was personally helpless, when my coat collar was vigorously seized and I was quickly pulled up and out to a secure footing on the platform. Upon turning to thank my rescuer I saw it was Edwin Booth, whose face was of course well known to me, and I expressed my gratitude to him, and in doing so, called him by name. Continue reading
He was a foe without hate; a friend without treachery; a soldier without cruelty; a victor without oppression; and a victim without murmuring. He was a public officer without vices; a private citizen without wrong; a neighbor without reproach; a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without guile. He was a Caesar without his ambition; Frederick without his tyranny; Napoleon without his selfishness; and Washington without his reward.
Benjamin H. Hill on Robert E. Lee
“It’s a warm spring Sunday at Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond. As the minister is about to present Holy Communion, a tall well-dressed black man sitting in the section reserved for African Americans unexpectedly advances to the communion rail; unexpectedly because this has never happened here before.
The congregation freezes. Those who have been ready to go forward and kneel at the communion rail remain fixed in their pews. The minister stands in his place stunned and motionless. The black man slowly lowers his body, kneeling at the communion rail.
After what seems an interminable amount of time, an older white man rises. His hair snowy white, head up, and eyes proud, he walks quietly up the isle to the chancel rail.
So with silent dignity and self-possession, the white man kneels down to take communion along the same rail with the black man.
Lee has said that he has rejoiced that slavery is dead. But this action indicates that those were not idle words meant to placate a Northern audience. Here among his people, he leads wordlessly through example. The other communicants slowly move forward to the altar with a mixture of reluctance and fear, hope and awkward expectation. In the end, America would defy the cruel chain of history besetting nations torn apart by Civil War.”
From “April 1865: the Month that Saved America” Continue reading
Something for the weekend. For Bales. A Confederate song mocking the defeat of the Union forces under Major General Nathaniel Banks, one of the more inept political generals, in 1864. The Red River campaign had as its objective the capture of Shreveport, Louisiana, in northwestern Louisiana, the largest city still under the control of the Confederates in the Pelican state, and the capture of hundreds of thousands of bales of cotton on plantations along the Red River. The bales of cotton were eagerly eyed by Union speculators and the entire campaign had an unsavory plundering feel to it. In any case the campaign ended in disaster for the Union, with the Union forces being beaten decisively at the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. Major General Richard Taylor, the only son of President Zachary Taylor, who commanded the Confederate forces in both engagements, was hailed as a hero of the Confederacy and promoted to Lieutenant General.
Here is a video of an extensive presentation by Dale Phillips on the Red River campaign:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPb5LR1goio Continue reading
In January of 1864 the Confederate Army of Tennessee high command was roiled by a proposal of its best divisional commander Major General Patrick Cleburne, an Irish immigrant, that Southern slaves be freed, and that black men be enlisted in the Confederate Army. This was not the first time that a Confederate officer had made such a proposal, General Richard Ewell had advised Jefferson Davis to free the slaves after First Bull Run for example, but this was the most elaborate, well thought out proposal yet made on the subject of emancipation by a Confederate officer. The plan met with considerable opposition among the officers of the Army of Tennessee that learned of it, and on instructions from Richmond it was quietly shelved. Cleburne would die leading a charge at the battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864. By this time Confederate plans to enlist slaves were being discussed publicly. A bill allowing the enlistment of blacks in the Confederate Army was passed on March 13, 1865 by the Confederate Congress, far too late to aid the Confederacy. Even that Act did not stipulate freedom for slaves who served. A different positive reception to Cleburne’s proposal is one of the more tantalizing what ifs of Civil War history. Here is the text of the letter in which Cleburne set forth his plan: Continue reading
The Civil War is filled with tales of adventure, and perhaps one of the more interesting is the escape by Confederate General John Hunt Morgan from an Ohio prison on November 27, 1863. After his surrender following his Great Raid through Indiana and Ohio in June-July 1863, go here to read about it, Morgan and his officers were sent to the Ohio state penitentiary due to overcrowding in prisoner of war camps in Ohio.
At the prison the Confederates were housed in the newly constructed East Hall with a partition being constructed to separate the prisoners of war from the criminals. Eventually 68 Confederates would be housed there. The Confederates were not required to wear prison uniforms and allowed to receive packages. Morgan was determined to escape from the outset of his captivity. When he heard that his pregnant wife was ill he redoubled his efforts to find some way out.
Opportunity dawned with a decision on November 3 that the Federal government would assume responsibility for the Confederates. No longer would their cells be cleaned, and inspected, by a prison guard each day. The Confederates learned from a prisoner about a ventilation chamber under the ground floor cells.
A few days digging got them through the cell floor into the air chamber. They then began to tunnel through a wall of the chamber and up to the prison yard. A smuggled newspaper gave them the schedule for the Little Miami Railroad that ran by the prison.
Shortly after midnight on a rainy November 28, 1863, Morgan and six of his officers made their break, going into the air chamber, through the tunnel, out into the prison yard and then scaling the wall. The escape of Morgan and his men was not discovered until just before dawn. Two of the escapees were recaptured on December 2.
Morgan and three of the other Confederates went to a train station and took a train to Cincinnati. Making their way to the Ohio, Morgan and one of his men paid a boy to row them across in his boat to Kentucky. A native of the blue grass state, Morgan breathed easier although he was still in Union territory. Within a few weeks he was back behind his Confederate lines, now a hero to all Confederates, along with the four other men who succeeded in escaping. Continue reading
“Bury me in the sunshine”, were the last words of the Archbishop of New York, John Hughes, as he departed this Vale of Tears on January 3, 1864. Hughes was looked upon by his contemporaries as a force of nature rather than a man. Overseeing with skill the explosive growth of the Church in New York, and helping lead generations of Catholic immigrants out of poverty, he also found time to take part in the public affairs of his day, and was probably the best known Catholic churchman of his time. He was also a very tough and fearless man. After the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in 1844 he called on the mayor of New York, an anti-Catholic bigot, and informed him that if a single Catholic church were touched in New York, New York would be a second Moscow. (The reference was to the burning of Moscow in 1812 during Napoleon’s occupation of the city.) Not a Catholic church was touched. On another occasion when a threat was made to burn Saint Patrick’s cathedral the Archbishop had it guarded within hours by 4,000 armed Catholics. No wonder his enemies and friends nicknamed him “Dagger John”!
At the beginning of the Civil War he had thrown himself wholeheartedly behind the preservation of the Union, rallying New York’s Irish to support the cause and going to Europe at the instigation of the Lincoln administration to garner support for the Union. Small wonder that after his death Lincoln wrote,
“having formed the Archbishop’s acquaintance in the earliest days of our country’s present troubles, his counsel and advice were gladly sought and continually received by the Government on those points which his position enabled him better than others to consider. At a conjuncture of deep interest to the country, the Archbishop, associated with others, went abroad, and did the nation a service there with all the loyalty, fidelity and practical wisdom which on so many other occasions illustrated his great ability for administration.”
His finest moment probably was when, visibly dying, he rose from his death bed to make a speech on July 16, 1863 which helped quell the draft riots. The speech is extremely interesting. It contains a fair amount of humor, Hughes recognizing that the Irish always loved a message if it was leavened with laughter, and the Archbishop’s message was an appeal to the New York Irish based upon their love of Ireland and their innate sense of fairness. It is a marvel to me that a dying man could do this, but Dagger John accomplished it. Here is the text of the speech:
MEN OF NEW YORK: They call you rioters and I cannot see a riotous face among you. (Cheers) I call you men of New York, not gentlemen, because gentlemen is so threadbare a term that it means nothing positive. (Applause.) Give me men, and I know of my own knowledge, that if the City were invaded by a British or any other foreign Power, (laughter.) the delicate ladies of New York, with infants at their breasts, would look for their protection to men, rather than to gentlemen. (Applause.) Of course, there is no reason why you should not be gentlemen, for there is no real difference between these terms. (Applause.) I address you of my own choice; and I would do so if I had to go on crutches. No one has prompted me to do it. My lungs are stronger than my limbs. It gratifies me that you have met in peace and good order here at this time. This, however, does not surprise me—it is what I expected. I do not address you as the President. (laughter,) or the Governor, or the Mayor, or a military officer. I address you as your father. (Cheers.) VOICE—You are worth the whole of them. And I am not going to go into the question, what has brought about this unhappy state of things. It is not my business to do so but as far as I am concerned myself, you know that I am a minister of God, and a minister of peace, who in your troubles in years past, as you know, never deserted you. (Cheers, and cries of “No, never.”) With my tongue and my pen I have stood by you always, and so shall to the end of my life, so long as you are right, and I sincerely hope that you are not wrong. (Cheers.) I am not a runaway Bishop in times of danger. (A Voice—”No, you’re not like BEECHER.”) It has been perhaps a calamity, but I do not regret it. That I never was conscious of the sentiment of fear until the danger was over, and then sometimes I might perhaps get a little nervous. (Cheers.) I could not even in the best of cases, as you know, fight for you.
The course of nature has denied me that privilege but I can still stand by you, I can still advise you, and, if necessary, I can die with you. (Great cheering.) As I said before, I will not enter into the question which has provoked all this excitement. No doubt there are some real grievances, but still I think that there are many imaginary ones—because in this world everything is comparative in its nature. There are no people in the world that have not some cause of grievance, and there are few that have not greater cause for complaint than we can complain of, after all. (Cheers.) Everything is comparative, and a change is not always an improvement.
When I cast my thoughts back to the land of my forefathers, and when I think of it’s desolation, when I see the fertile west and south of Ireland depopulated and cattle browsing on the ruins of the cottages of the noble race that once lived there, I thank God that I was permitted to be among those who had an opportunity of coming to this country, where at least no such wretched tyranny is practiced (great cheering.) If you are Irishmen, and the papers say the rioters are all Irishmen, then I also am an Irishman, (tremendous applause) but not a rioter, for I am a man of peace. If you are Catholics, as they have said, probably to wound my feelings, then I also am a Catholic (cheers.) Continue reading