Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The French and Indian War: Outbreak 1754

If the whole Detachment of the French behave with no more Risolution than this chosen party did, we shall have no great trouble driving them [back to Montreal].
George Washington in a letter to Robert Dinwiddie, June 3, 1754

In the mid-eighteenth century, America's Ohio River valley was a disaster waiting to happen. Through what is now the southwest of Pennsylvania the territory went, and France, Great Britain, and the Iroquois Confederacy each asserted it belonged to them. Since Europe during the Age of Reason went to war at the drop of a hat, one foolish move in the valley could result in war. 

Some—like Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie—did not consider that deplorable possibility, though. After taking control of the Ohio Company, an organization of land speculators, in 1752, Dinwiddie set about tightening its grip on the Forks of the Ohio, the intersection of the Allegheny and Ohio Rivers. To hold the forks meant you held the rivers, which in turn meant you also controlled the valley. Hence, in order to legitimize his claim, he sent men to look for a proper site for a fort.

Marquis de Duquesne, French Canada's governor-general, did not like that development. To him, Dinwiddie's move put his own territorial dreams in jeopardy. First, in June 1752, he decimated an American trading post in the vicinity. Then, he had four fortresses built, one of which was located at the forks.
George Washington, the Virginia Colonel, 1772

Eventually, in December of 1753, a 21-year-old major by the name of George Washington arrived at Fort Le Boeuf, handing to the fort's commandant, Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre, an ultimatum from Dinwiddie. The ultimatum, which stated that the Ohio valley was "notoriously known to be the Property of the Crown of Great Britain," commanded that the French withdraw from the area. Legardeur refused: "As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it."

Having failed to get them to leave diplomatically, Dinwiddie decided to prevent the French from taking his beloved valley by sending Washington, now a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia Regiment, with a group of volunteers to the frontier. On April 2, Washington and his entouraged of 186 souls departed Alexandria, Virginia for the frontier.

During their journey, they learned that Captain William Trent, with two companies of 40 frontiersmen each, had reached the forks back in February, and with the help of a few native inhabitants was constructing a fort. Now, Washington was told, Trent and his men were not only running out of supplies but 800 Frenchmen were moving to give them a coup de grace. Trent pleaded for Washington to help him. 

Washington anxiously moved on. Reaching Wills Creek on April 20 he met Trent's ensign, Edward Ward. Three days earlier, Ward told Washington, 1,000 French troops landed close to the fort. As Trent was off trying to obtain some provisions, the fort was under his command. After he and his men had capitulated, the French—who were now under the command of Captain Claude-Pierre P├ęcaudy, sieur de Contrecoeur—destroyed their fort. 

On the very ground where it had stood, the French built another one, and it was named Fort Duquesne. Within its walls Contrecoeur received reports of the Virginia Regiment's advance. As much as he wanted to, he could not assail Washington; such a move was contrary to Governor Duquesne's orders. However, he could intimidate them. So he ordered Ensign Joseph Coulon de Villiers, sieur de Jumonville to take some troops with him and demand that Washington and his men leave. With 35 soldiers, Jumonville on May 23 embarked for Green Meadows, a clearing where the Virginia Regiment was now located.

When he heard of their approach, Washington believed the French were coming not to order him to depart but to launch a surprise attack on his regiment. Therefore, he had his men dig "a good Intrenchment" and make "a charming field for an Encounter" by having them clear away the vegetation. On May 27, Christopher Gist, who had served as guide when Washington traveled to Fort Le Boeuf and at one point saved his life, entered the encampment. A short time ago, Gist imparted to Washington, 50 Frenchmen went to his cabin 13 miles away, threatening to kill his cow and break "every Thing in the House"; then they moved on in the direction of Green Meadows. Gist guessed that the French were at this time very close by. With this information, Washington sent Captain Peter Hog, a middle-aged Scotsman who had recently emmigrated from Edinburgh, to intercept the French with 75 men. Dinwiddie, Washington reasoned, had not prohibited him from taking such a measure; he told him to "act on the Difensive" upon reaching the forks, "but in Case any Attempts are made to obstruct the Works or interrupt our Settlemts by any Persons whatsoever, You are to restrain all such Offenders, & in Case of resistance to make Prisoners of or kill & destroy them." Otherwise, he was to behave "as the Circumsts. of the Service shall require."

Still, what Washington did was foolish in the extreme. Despite fearing the French were a part of greater force, Washington divided his regiment by sending Hog off. Now if Washington's supposition turned out to be to be true, the Frenchmen would most certainly annihilate Hog's detachment. If it proved to be the exact opposite, if the Americans outnumbered the French, an attack on the Frenchmen would incur the ire of Contrecoeur, ire that would surely result in reprisals for Washington and his men; but that was just what Washington wanted.

So, when Hog's detachment was nearly out of sight, Washington lied. Gathering some young Seneca warriors accompanying the regiment, he told them the French had arrived at Gist's cabin to look for their chief, their Half-King, Tanacharison so as to kill him. This conveyance, Washington would write, had "its desired Effect." The wrathful natives promised to kill any Frenchmen who harmed the Half-King, and they left the campsite in search of them.

It was 8:00 P.M. when a Seneca messenger arrived at camp, handing a message to Washington; it was from the Half-King himself. Wanting to link up with the Virginia Regiment, he led his warriors to a location in the forest close to Green Meadows. Along the way, they discovered tracks... French tracks. Having followed them until they sought refuge in a "low obscure Place," sending a messenger to alert Washington that Frenchmen were in the area. Leaving 36 men behind, Washington left the camp with 40 men, intent on attacking the French as well.

Through rainy woods they went, under its great green canopy, the calls of the various other creatures coming from seemingly everywhere, in "a Night as dark as Pitch, along a Path scarce broad enough for one Man." Puddle after puddle was disturbed by boots, which made a slopping noise upon impact with the mud: slop-slop-slop. Men accidentally crashed into trees... and into themselves. As the sun began to show itself and as the rain started to die down the following morning, May 28, Washington reached the Half-King's camp, six miles from where his own camp was at Green Meadows.

As the Virginians got some much needed rest after their miserable march, Washington and Tanacharison, with the help of an interpreter, consulted with one another about what to do next. Suffice it to say both men agreed to assail the French, resolving to "fall on them together."

In the rocky glen where they had set up their camp, the Frenchmen that misty morning were experiencing trouble in making a fire, the tinder, kindling, and wood too wet from the rain to ignite. At around 7:00 A.M., Washington arose from his hiding place to order that the Virginians' and Senecans' commence the ambush, and he surprised a French soldier nearby. The Frenchman alerted his comrades, but as they tried to grab their muskets, Washington signaled to begin firing. Shouting through the cacophony of battle—the roar of musketry, the cries of soldiers wounded and unwounded, the war whoops of the natives—Jumonville implored his assailants to cease firing; he was ignored. The French fell in heaps- ten or twelve dead would be counted on the field- as six natives, lacking muskets, "servd to knock the poor unhappy wounded in the head and beriev'd them of their Scalps." When the fight was over, in addition to those Frenchmen killed, 22 French troops became prisoners and two of them were wounded; only one Virginian had died. It had all happened within 15 minutes.


Writing to his brother John, Washington conveyed experiencing combat for the first time:

I fortunately escaped without a wound, tho' the right Wing where I stood was exposed to & received all the Enemy's fire and was the part where the man was killed & the rest wounded. I can with truth assure you, I heard Bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.

(This letter would be published in London Magazine that summer. After reading it, King George II of Great Britain looked up, facing his companions. "He would not say so," the British monarch commented wittily, "if he had been used to hear many.")

The engagement over, Washington walked among the devastation. He saw lying wounded on the ground Jumonville, who asked him to read the papers he still grasped in his hand. Jumonville stated that Washington had just committed an act of immense folly. He was leading a diplomatic mission, Jumonville told Washington, not one to begin a war. Right after Washington took the papers that substantiated Jumonville's claims, a Senecan, some say it was the Half-King, smashed the Frenchman's skull with his tomahawk, killing him; Jumonville's brains now spilling from his head, the native washed his hands in them.

Jumonville was right. Washington had made a huge mistake. He had fired the first shots of the French and Indian War, which would later become part of the larger Seven Years' War—a conflict that would be fought not only on the American continent, but in Europe and Asia as well. True, the war might have been inevitable, but by poking the French giant, Washington made it dream of reprisal.


Vengeance would be soon in coming.


Recommended Reading:

Lengel, Edward G. General George Washington: a Military Life. Random House Trade Pbk. ed. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2007. Print.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hanover Court House 1862

We was defeated through General Branchs bad management. He was told by a Civilian that the enemy force was small & he believed it...
A Confederate soldier in Branch's brigade.

It seemed that while the American Civil War would not be ended in a single battle, it would end in less than a year since both sides lost that illusion at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas). It was May 1862, and General George Brinton McClellan's Army of the Potomac was advancing up the Virginia Peninsula, on their way to Richmond, the Confederate capital. "The enemy are at the gates," implored the Richmond Dispatch on May 16. "Who will take the lead and act, act, act?"

The Dispatch had good reason to be worried; the Yankees were at the gates. In her diary on May 3, Judith White McGuire wrote that "It is distressing to see how many persons are leaving Richmond." On the seventh she noted that more and more persons were abandoning the capital. Even in the very early morning, a river of wagons teeming with clocks, couches, pianos, any family property that could be extricated from homes were moving down the streets. Railroad depots were filled with refugees, too; so were the boats moving westward on the James River Canal. Simultaneously civilians from the Peninsula, running away from the Federals, moved in. The President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, sent his wife and children away to North Carolina. The Confederate Congress called for adjournment and its members hastely left for the states they represented. Secretary of War George W. Randolph had the archives of the War Department stowed away in case they also joined the exodus while Secretary of the Treasury Christopher Memminger put the gold reserves on notice for evacuation. The Southern press might have proclaimed that the Battles of Williamsburg and Eltham's Landing were Confederate victories, but those engagements obviously didn't stop McClellan.

However, the soldiers would not leave along with the local populace and politicians. Richmond, declared the Virginia General Assembly on May 14, was to be defended "to the last extremity," assuring President Davis that any loss or destruction of property would be "cheerfully submitted to." "Richmond must not be given up," General Robert E. Lee promulgated in a Cabinet meeting that same day, surprising his colleagues with intensity of his passion; "it shall not be given up!" "To lose Richmond is to lose Virginia," asserted the Dispatch, "and to lose Virginia is to lose the key to the Southern Confederacy." The following day, Governor John Letcher held a huge meeting in front of City Hall to enlist citizens' committees for the defense of the capital. To the audience, Richmond's mayor, Joseph Mayo, stated that if they wanted him to capitulate the city, "So help me God, I'll never do it." Even though he was 70 years of age- old today but really old in the Victorian period- he would obtain a musket and fight at the barricades. Mayo was given three cheers. The boom of Yankee cannon could be heard off in the distance.

Eventually the Yankees made it to the banks of the Chickahominy River, and it did not take them long to erect bridges. Indeed, one structure, the Richmond and York River Railroad brigde, was only partially destroyed. Lieutenant William Folwell of the 50th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac's engineering brigade, recalled that "the Rebels, fortunately for us, burnt only some 80 ft. of the bridge over the channel... What fools the Rebs were not to do their work better..." Seven days later, the bridge was back in business. Near the decimated Bottom's Bridge, the 1st Minnesota (the only regiment from that state in the Army of the Potomac) and the 5th New Hampshire built two bridges. "About 3 companys had to work in the water waist deep all day..." recorded the 1st's Private Matthew Marrin in his diary on May 27, "The whiskee ration taken on going to bed kept us all rite I guess- at least I kept warm." Two days after Marrin wrote this entry, the bridges were finished.

While the construction was taking place, a civilian, one Dr. Pollock, reported that the Rebels were advancing 17,000 men to Hanover Court House, fourteen miles north of Richmond and on the rear of the Army of the Potomac's right flank. For some reason, the Yankees always believed that whatever the locals uttered was true. Consequently, McClellan became worried; if the rebels assualted his flank from Hanover Court House, he reasoned, they would disrupt Yankees' crossing of the Chickahominy. McClellan sent General Fitz John Porter- a confident, cautious soldier, whom he considered to be his best general by the hugest of margins- to deal with this threat, now reduced to 6,000 troops thanks to some further intelligence-gathering on the part of the cavalry.
Gen. Fitz John Porter and staff of seven. Hqrs. 5th Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, Harrison's Landing, James River, Va., Aug. 1862: Major Joseph Kirkland, Colenel Locke, Captain Mason, Major Charles McMillen, Captain John F. McQuade, Major Montieth, Colonel Norton by Matthew Brady.
Those numbers were still off the mark, though. Confederate General Lawton O'Bryan Branch's reinforced brigade numbered about 4,000 men, and he had no intention of outflanking the enemy. Actually, his job was to guard the Virginia Central Railroad, which was the predominant link between the Confederate Capital and the Shenandoah Valley. Posted in the vicinity of Peake's Crossing on the railroad four miles southwest of Hanover Court House, Branch's brigade would be outnumbered three to one in the coming fight.

On May 27, 1862, when the first light of the morning was beginning to show amidst a terrible downpour, Porter and his V Corps embarked for Hanover Court House. The sounds of nature were no doubt there- birds and insects chirping, rain falling heavily to the ground, turning it into a muddy morass. The trees and their green foliage were all wet under an overcast sky. Yet it was the mud that caused the men to gripe in their letters and diaries. "It is a light yellow and as sticky as wax," a private had conveyed to his family back in Massachusettes, and a regular wrote that he "never saw a 'bad road' until I came here..." On this occasion, remembered a member of the 22nd Massachusettes, the path the Yankees had to take to Hanover Court House "was eighteen miles in length, and about one foot in depth." It ceased raining by midmorning, but the mud remained.

The two sides first made contact when the Yankees reached a Rebel outpost at a crossroads at 12:00 P.M. Of course, the Yankees, exhausted from slogging in the mud, grumbled, believing they had done enough for the day. The men of the 25th New York, accompanied by cavalry, bore the brunt of the initial losses before the rest of Porter's command made it onto the field. After perhaps an hour of skirmishing in a woodlot and around the house and barn of one Dr. Kinney, the Confederates quickly withdrew, many of them heading northward to Hanover Court House. Porter, leaving only the 25th and 44th New York and 2nd Maine as well as a two-gun section of artillery behind at the crossroads, and the rest of his men pursued the majority of the fleeing Rebels. He expected them to lead him to their comrades... that, unfortunately, was not so.

In fact, Porter had marched away from Branch's brigade. Rather than retreat, Branch foolishly attacked the Yankees at the crossroads. Union staff officers rode rapidly to Porter to get him to come back while the assailants, wrote the 2nd Maine's colonel, "appeared boldly in front, advancing in perfect order... the Stars and Bars defiantly flying." That flag belonged to the 18th North Carolina, which, according to the 18th's Private William Bellamy, was "ordered to charge the Yankee Battery after marching to the double quick at charge Bayonets for about 300 yards." Storming out of the woods and charging across a wheatfield, the North Carolinians received a heavy dose of led. "In consequence of our men being mowed down like grass," added Bellamy, "we fell back to our original stand..." The Mainers and North Carolinians then fought over a hedgegrow fence. Both sides pushed their weapons through the hedgegrow to fire on the enemy; both sides' rifles became so hot from use that men had to pour water on them with their canteens.

A problem for the Federals arose. At the beginning of the day, they had received 60 rounds per man, but now the Yankees were running short. This situation enabled the Rebels to capture the Yankee artillery, driving the artillerymen away. To make matters worse, the center of the Federal line started to crack open- "a disorderly movement" was how the Union brigade commander, John H. Martindale, referred to the event. The 44th New York, losing a quarter of its men at this moment, would eventually discover 44 holes in its battle flag.

Salvation followed for the Yankees: Porter arrived! Lieutenant Colonel Patrick A. Guiney, 9th Massachusettes, told his wife what happened next:

The woods all round were swarmed with rebels... We met the rebels on the verge of the wood and whipped them out of it in no time- such quick work I never saw- the rebels made a stand in the open field... Again we pressed upon the enemy- captured one of their flags- and drove them in the most indescribable disorder.

More Yankees arrived, and Branch was compelled to retreat rapidly. The fighting ceased with the coming of darkness.

"We whipped them and have driven them from the ground, killing a large number and taking a great many prisoners" was how Porter put it to McClellan. The Yankees suffered 285 killed and wounded, most of them from the Mainers and New Yorkers that held the crossroads; the Rebels, perhaps 270 to 300, including three of the four Robinett brothers of Company G, 37th North Carolina killed. It was the number of prisoners captured that tipped the balance in favor of the Yakees- 731 Confederates compared to only 70 Federals. McClellan, who always believed the enemy outnumbered him, called the Battle of Hanover Court House a "glorious victory over superior numbers." Porter's feet, McClellan told Washington, "has entirely relieved my right flank which was seriously threatened." The battle was "one of the handsomest things of the war..."

Hanover Court House might have been handsome, but it was not so for the broader strategic picture. McClellan's focus on Branch resulted in an entire week's delay in securing his army's position across the Chickahominy. He had absolutely neglected of putting more of the Army of the Potomac on the other side of the river while Porter was fighting it out. As time would soon tell, his failure to do so would nearly cause a disaster for the Union.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

First Blood 1861: The Death of Colonel Ellsworth

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here, is scarcely less than your own.
President Abraham Lincoln in a letter to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth.

Even though he was a candidate in the 1860 Presidential election, Abraham Lincoln, with his partner William Herndon, still ran a law office at 105 South Fifth Street in Springfield, Illinois. In August of that year a young man five feet six and clean shaven arrived at there to study law under Mr. Lincoln. His name was Elmer E. Ellsworth.

A New Yorker who had been born in Saratoga County in 1837, Ellsworth was sufficiently young to be Lincoln's son. Indeed, it seemed that he was his son at times. With Robert Lincoln away studying at Harvard, Ellsworth took on his role of being the older brother to Tad and Willie, being infected with the measles from them, and when President-elect Lincoln traveled to Washington for his inauguration, Ellsworth went with him.

But before he accompanied Lincoln, Ellsworth in 1860 met Charles A. DeVillier, a veteran of the famous French Zouaves. Inspired by the DeVillier's tales, Ellsworth, influenced by what the Zouaves wore, completely changed the uniform of the Sixtieth Regiment of the Illinois State Militia:

A bright red chasseur cap with gold braid; light blue shirt with moire antique facings; dark blue jacket with orange and red trimmings; brass bell bottoms, placed as close together as possible; a red sash and loose red trousers; russet leather leggings, buttoned over the trousers, reaching from ankle halfway to knee; and a white waistbelt.
Zouave soldier by Matthew Brady.

From Chicago, Ellsworth and fifty men of the Sixtieth dressed in the new attire traveled across the nation, not only amazing audiences with what soldiers were trained to do at the time but challenging other militiamen to drill competitions. On many newspapers, Ellsworth and his U.S. Zouave Cadets were front page news.

Then came Fort Sumter. With the coming of the Civil War, Ellsworth went to New York City, organizing the Eleventh New York, a Zouave regiment 1,100 strong. Since all the New Yorkers were firemen, the unit became known as Ellsworth's Fire Zouaves. Arriving in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 1861, Ellsworth and his Fire Zouaves marched down Pennsylvania Avenue. From that point on, they marched in front of the White House and on the South Lawn for the President to see.

Across the Potomac and south of the District of Columbia, Virginia dissolved its bonds with the Union on May 23, 1861, joining the newly formed Confederate States of America. The next day, Colonel Ellsworth and his Eleventh New York crossed the river, disembarking at Alexandria. From there, they went to telegraph office with the intention of cutting all communications between Alexandria and the rest of the Confederacy. As they were heading towards the office, Ellsworth spotted the Confederate Bonnie Blue Flag flying from the Marshall House, a three-story hotel. Going across the street, he entered the house, went up the stairs, and pulled it down; however, going downstares, James W. Jackson, the owner of the hotel, fired his double-barrel shotgun, killing him. Ellsworth was the first officer to die in the American Civil War.
Marshall House, Alexandria, Va., where Col. Ellsworth was shot down for attempting to remove a Confederate flag from the roof. by Matthew Brady.
Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusettes and a correspondent entered the White House library. Lincoln was there, so was a young captain, too, who had just told him of Ellsworth's fate. A saddened Lincoln turned to Wilson and the reporter, reaching out his hand. "Excuse me, but I cannot talk." was all he could say. He had Ellsworth's body lie in state in the East Room, and on May 26 a funeral service for the dead colonel was performed.

The day before, though, Lincoln tried to console Ellsworth's parents:

What was convulsive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents... In hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address this tribute to your brave and early fallen child. May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lincoln and Liberty: Part Two

The Arrest of Vallandigham


Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert? I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but withal, a great mercy.
Abraham Lincoln to Democrat Erastus Corning in a letter dated June 12, 1863.

Of all the opponents of the Lincoln Administration, none stood out more than conservative Democrat Clement L. Vallandigham, the leader of the peace faction of the Democratic Party, better known as the "Peace Democrats" or the "Copperheads," a sobriquet given to them by their Republican opponents after a writer to the Cincinnati Commercial compared them to the snake in Genesis 3:14: "Upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life." The son of a Presbyterian minister, Vallandigham—a native of New Lisbon, Ohio—was descended from a Virginia family, a tie which made him sympathetic to the Confederate cause. In 1845, a mere 25 years of age, he was elected to the Ohio state legislature. Thirteen years later, he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he became Jacksonian to the core, advocating states' rights; but when the Congressional biennial election in the fall of 1862 came around, Valldigham, whose campaign slogan was "The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was," lost that seat thanks to the Ohio Republicans' use of gerrymandering.
C.L. Vallandigham by Mathew Brady.

Despite this setback, he chose to continue making his views quite plain for the remainder of the 37th Congress, and on January 14, 1863, he went to the center of the opposition benches to say good-bye. Putting down their pens and newspapers, Valldigham's fellow congressmen listened to what he had to say. So what has this Lincoln achieved thus far? he rhetorically asked himself. "Let the dead of Fredericksburg and Vicksburg answer." These, added Vallandigham, are the fruits of Lincoln's labors: "Defeat, debt, taxation, sepulchers, these are your trophies." "Stop fighting," he urged. "Make an armistice... Withdraw your army from the seceded States." Yet what was perhaps the scariest part of his whole speech was when he referenced the desire of many western Democrats like himself for a "Northwest Confederacy" that would secede from the Union and reunite with South, an act that would supposedly humble New England and impel her to request to be readmitted:

The people of the West demand peace, and they begin to more than suspect that New England is in the way. If you of the East, who have found this war against the South, and for the negro, gratifying for your hate or profitable to your purse, will continue it... [be prepared for] eternal divorce between the West and the East.

"Let time do his office," concluded Vallandigham, "drying tears, dispelling sorrows, mellowing passions, and making herb and grass and tree grow again upon the hundred battlefields of this terrible war." "Valiant Val" had spoken for over an hour.

Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside by Mathew Brady.
When the 37th Congress ended in March, Vallandigham returned to his home in Dayton, Ohio. Also in that month, the Department of the Ohio received a new commander: General Ambrose E. Burnside, fresh from being whipped at Fredericksburg by Robert E. Lee. Intent on crushing copperheadism in his jurisdiction, Burnside, on April 13, issued General Order Number 38. "Treason expressed or implied will not be tolerated," it read. Anyone, the order added, who "uttered one word against the government of the United States" or conveyed "sympathies for the enemy" would be banished to the Confederacy or tried by a military court. It was worse for those person found guilty of "acts for the benefit of the enemies of our country"; they would be executed.

Upon learning of this order, Vallandigham sensed an opportunity. If Burnside arrested him, he thought, his chances for becoming the Democratic nominee for the Ohio gubernatorial race would increase greatly. Vallandigham decided to lure the general into a trap.

The trap was sprung on May 1, 1863 at a Democratic rally in Mount Vernon, Ohio. It was a very colorful occasion. Thousands of stars and stripes stood beside banners showing butternuts, one of which proclaimed "the Copperheads are coming." Copperhead pins- the Peace Democrats embraced that moniker- showing the Goddess of Liberty adorned lapels, dresses, and hats. It was estimated that the audience numbered 15,000.

Before all the people started gathering, the Democratic Club of Newark was waiting for Vallandigham at the train station. Finally the club saw the locomotive, its smoke stack belching out smoke into the cool morning air of spring. As it neared the station, it started slowing down, its bells ringing in order to signal that the train was about to stop. At 8:00 A.M., the train now still, "Valiant Val" stepped out of the passenger car. Four hours and thirty minutes later, the Democratic meeting commenced.

Also on that morning, the men of the 115th Ohio, which was stationed in Cincinnati, saw two of their captains leave camp dressed as civilians. They shrugged; must have resigned their commissions, they thought. Actually, Burnside had selected them to attend the rally to take notes on what Vallandigham was going to say, and that same morning the officers boarded a train destined for Mount Vernon.

There, Vallandigham delivered his speech at the gathering first. Among the crowd, of course, were the two agents working for Burnside, whose presence Vallandigham was aware of. He began by pointing to the American flags that surrounded the speakers' stand he was on. The stars, he claimed, would have still been together had it not been for those dastardly Republicans. He then turned his gaze to the agent taking notes (his partner was only listening) and stated his right to speak freely was derived from the Constitution, which overruled Burnsides Order Number 38, "a bane usurpation of arbitrary power." He ended his oration by urging his listeners to teach "King Lincoln" a lesson through the ballot box.

Such rhetoric was all Burnside needed. He ordered Captain Charles G. Hutton and 67 men under his command to seize the Copperhead.

Knocks on the door of his house jarred Vallandigham awake. It was 2:30 on the morning of May 5. His name was called, although it was mispronounced, and the voice demanded that he give himself up. Vallandigham refused, locking all of his doors. With the help of bars and axes, Hutton's men brought down the front door. After hard kicks by the troops were applied to the other doors, Vallandigham was trapped, and he capitulated to Hutton. Fear gripped his wife and sister-in-law as the Union soldiers escorted their husband and brother-in-law out of his home.

From there, Hutton and his men sent Vallandigham to Cincinnati, Burnside's headquarters. The Democrat was then convicted by a military court and given a prison sentence that was to last for the duration of the war. He appealed for a writ of habeas corpus, but a federal judge denied that request, citing Lincoln's suspension of the writ. While in prison, Vallandigham penned "To the Democracy of Ohio," an address that was smuggled out of the jail and made its way to many of the nation's newspapers: "I am here in a military bastile for no other offense than my political opinions."

Lincoln, who learned of the affair from the papers, now faced a dilemma. He understood that both Burnside and Vallandigham had made foolish moves and brought the touchy subject up during a meeting with his cabinet on May 19, whose thought processes Burnside heard about. Ten days later, Burnside told the president that he knew that Vallandigham's arrest was "a source of Embarrassment" and tendered the commander in chief his resignation. Later that day, Lincoln responded that "being done, all were for seeing you through with it."

However, that reply did not solve the problem. He could not keep Vallandigham locked up until the Union was preserved; that would elicit the sympathy of the public for gubernatorial candidate. Yet he could not reprehend Burnside in public; that, too, would damage his administration politically. Eventually he found a solution: banish Vallandigham to the Confederacy.

On the morning of May 25, 1863, at the Shelbyville Turnpike in Tennessee, a Confederate cavalry officer from Alabama saw an unusual sight: Yankee cavalrymen carrying a white flag and escorting a prisoner, apparently a civilian. They were heading in his direction. After the Rebels reluctantly accepted him, Vallandigham introduced himself to his new hosts. In the South, he spoke with several Confederate army officers and politicians, conveying his desire for an amicable reunion. They all dismissed him; only when the North recognized the South as a separate, independent nation, they answered, would peace come. If you think you could preserve the Union through a compromise, they added, you, Vallandigham, are "badly deluded." The Ohioan imparted to one Rebel agent that if the Confederacy "can only hold out this year... the peace party of the North would sweep the Lincoln dynasty out of existence." Although he still held the delusion that an armistice and negotiations would be sufficient to bring the South back into the Union, the agent thought if the rebellious states refused to do so, "then possibly he is in favor of recognizing our independence." While in exile, on June 11, sympathetic Ohio Democrats nominated him for governor.

Transported to Wilmington, North Carolina, the new nominee boarded a blockade-runner in July, his destination being Canada. Upon his arrival there, he went to the city of Windsor near the border of the United States, from which he ran his campaign. Valiant Val was not out of the fight yet.

Selected Sources:

Marvel, William. The Great Task Remaining: The Third Year of Lincoln’s War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Print.
McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print. The Oxford History of the United States v. 6. 
White, Ronald C. A. Lincoln: a Biography. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2009. Print.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

John Sedgwick

His whole manner breathed of gentleness and sweetness, and in his broad breast was a boy's heart.
A Union officer

On May 9, 1864, at Spotsylvania, Virginia, a Confederate soldier was looking across the no-man's-land of the battlefield, watching his Yankee opponents, rifle in hand. Then, he saw the perfect target: an enemy officer. Grace steadied his rifle, aimed, and pressed the trigger. It was a hit.

What the Rebel could not have possibly known was that he had just killed Major General John Sedgwick.



It was at Cornwall Hollow, Connecticut on September 13, 1813 that John Sedgwick was brought into the world. The Sedgwicks were a typical New England family of the early 19th Century: Benjamin Sedgwick, John's father, was an extremely pious farmer who devoted much of his energy to tilling the land and the Congregationalist Church; his grandfather served in the Continental Army, fighting at Brandywine and suffering at Valley Forge. As a boy, John Sedgwick had the fortune to initially receive a public education, a concept that was very much in its infancy (it should be noted that at this time New England led the way in this field) and which was followed by a semester at private Sharon Academy. With all this knowledge, Sedgwick ended up teaching in Cornwall Hollow's one-room school house.
General John Sedgwick

That, however, did not mean that his formal education was over; an opportunity to receive an even higher education soon came when an almost 20-year-old John Sedgwick was appointed to the United States Military Academy at West Point. There, he encountered fellow cadets who he would get to know in the antebellum army, the Mexican War, and, sadly, as enemies: Braxton Bragg, John Pemberton, Jubal Early, and Joseph Hooker, who for a time would become his superior. Upon graduation, Sedgwick ranked 24th out of 50 members of the class of 1837.

Assigned to the artillery, Sedgwick first fought against the Seminoles in Florida and then helped remove the Cherokees from their native land in Georgia as part of the infamous "Trail of Tears." In the Mexican War, he first served under General Zachary Taylor, followed by General Winfield Scott; his service under both commanders allowed Sedgwick to see action in every engagement of that conflict. Wrote a fellow officer, "Sedgwick, under fire, was the coolest man I ever saw." Indeed, Sedgwick was brevetted captain for "gallant and meritorious conduct in the Battles of Contreras and Churubusco" and brevetted major for distinguishing himself at Chapultepec.

Then the dull monotony of peacetime returned. When the First Cavalry Regiment was established in 1855, Sedgwick joined the formation, being promoted to major, and like many soldiers of the antebellum years, he was sent to the West. There, he was participant in the 1857-1858 Utah expedition and fought against the Kiowa and Comanche in 1858-1860. It was out fighting the indigenous people of America and trying not to be stampeded by buffalo that Sedgwick showed the characteristics that would make him well-liked in the coming Civil War: slow to make a decision but determined in implementing it when he did decide and a fair man.

Lincoln's winning the presidency in 1860 found Sedgwick constructing Fort Wise in Colorado. Forty-seven-year-old bachelor John Sedgwick planned on resigning his commission in the spring of '61 and returning to Cornwall Hollow. He did not believe that the current arguments between the North and the South would result in war, hoping instead that a solution would be amicably found: "a remedy will be found to forge the links of the Union stronger than ever. All other evils compared with disunion are light."

Unfortunately for him, that was not so, and he was forced to put his plans for retirement on hold. "I had hoped to leave military life," he wrote his cousin, "but this cannot be now, for my country needs my service."

At first his country promoted him to a lieutenant colonel of the Second Cavalry at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Second Cavalry was, like the First Cavalry, created in 1855 and was ironically a favorite of then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, now President of the Confederacy, who chose all of its officers. Not surprisingly, the Second came to be known as "Jeff Davis' Own."

He was not in Kansas for long. In February 1862, Sedgwick, now a Colonel and in Washington, D.C., replaced Brigadier General Charles Stone as commander of one of the Army of the Potomac's divisions. "I enter upon the duties with a great deal of diffidence," he told his sister. "It is a large command, [13,000 men] occupying an important position, and, I fear, above my capacity; however, I shall do my best."

In terms of getting along with the men under his command, Sedgwick exceeded all expectations. Wearing a plain uniform devoid of his rank and a straw hat, with a thick a beard and hair that was in curls, burly (he was over 200 pounds) Sedgwick insisted his headquarters be in a tent, not a house, with all its amenities. His preference to share in the miseries of camp life was endearing in the extreme to his troops, who returned the endearment by referring to their commander as "Uncle John."

On the battlefield Sedgwick proved to be a fighter. At Fair Oakes on the Peninsula, Sedgwick's division helped to stem the Confederate tide; at Glendale, sick with camp fever, he received two minor wounds. The first huge blow to him occurred at Antietam, where his division was badly mauled—indeed, out of all the divisions of the Army of the Potomac, it was his that suffered the most casualties—and Sedgwick was wounded in the leg, then the wrist, and finally the shoulder. Almost an hour after his first wound, Sedgwick left the disputed ground. While it was his superior, Second Corps commander Edwin Sumner, who bears the responsibility for leaving Sedgwick's division exposed, the episode scarred Sedgwick, making him even more cautious and lowering his confidence in himself.


After recuperating in his home town, Sedgwick returned to the Army of the Potomac—then in winter quarters around Falmouth, Virginia—on December 22, 1862. In January, the army had a new commander: Joseph Hooker, who placed Uncle John in command of the Sixth Corps, the army's largest corps. Like his previous commands, Sedgwick gained the admiration of his men with his amiability.

It was soon discovered that Uncle John, despite being a stern disciplinarian, was capable of small kindnesses. A soldier of his corps approached a man without a uniform, asking if he resided close to headquarters. Why, are you asking this question? the man responded. The soldier said he "wanted an order on the commissary for a canteen for some friends who had come to see him." "Well," the man replied, "the commissary is a friend of mine"; then, he took out an old letter, writing on its back and handing it to the soldier. At the bottom of the message the signature read "John Sedgwick," and instead of imparting it to the commissary, the soldier kept it as a memento.

Spring came, and with it also came a resumption of campaigning and fighting. While the rest of the army was at Chancellorsville, the Sixth Corps was across the Rappahannock in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, where it was assailed by the enemy. Sedgwick, a disciple of McClellan who followed his former commander's rule that the Rebels always outnumber the Yankees, withdrew across the river despite repelling all of the Confederates' assualts. Whether it was because he preferred specific orders instead of discretionary ones or that the incident at Antietam was too mentally damaging, Sedgwick proved in May 1863 that he was unable to handle a semi-independent command.

Sedgwick recognized his shortcomings, though. When asked if he would replace Joe Hooker, Sedgwick, who had no ambition for higher command and disliked the in-fighting in politics and among the top commanders, answered, "Meade is the proper one to command this army." Soon after Major General George Gordon Meade took the rein of the Army of the Potomac, he conveyed to Sedgwick to head to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with all possible speed. At least a day's march away from the town, Sedgwick pushed his men, reaching it after 18 hours and 30 minutes of hard marching that did not allow pauses for breakfast and lunch. Consequently, the Sixth Corps adopted the sobriquet "Sedgwick's Foot Cavalry."

In the Battle of Gettysburg, Sedgwick's Foot Cavalry was fed into the cauldron of fire peicemeal. John Sedgwick, therefore, sat out this struggle.

Back in Virginia, the remainder of 1863 was virtually inactive for the armies fighting it out in the American Civil War's Eastern Theater. Whenever Meade left, he placed Sedgwick in command. Suffice it to say Sedgwick felt that he made the right choice by refusing to be the successor of Hooker.

When May came, the war returned. First came the Battle of Wilderness, then the Battle of Spotsylvania. Both fights saw the Sixth Corps take a good beating.
General Sedgwick (standing with hand in coat) and his staff



It was at Spotsylvania on the morning of May 9, 1864 that Sedgwick noticed that some of his troops up in front was blocking his artillery. "That is wrong," he muttered, and with his chief of staff, Martin T. McMahon, he went walked over to his infantry to fix the problem. McMahon got them to move, but that incurred the wrath of lead from the Rebel sharpshooters. Bullets whizzed around the Yankees, several of them to seek cover... except for Sedgwick, that is. He simply laughed and exclaimed, "What! What! Men dodging this way for single bullets! What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn't hit an elephant at this distance." A bullet whined close by, and a sergeant next to him dropped to the ground.

"What are you dodging at?" chided Sedgwick. "They can't hit an elephant at that distance."

The sergeant got up and saluted: "General, I dodged a shell once, and if I hadn't, it would have taken my head off. I believe in dodging."

Sedgwick laughed again, then replied, "All right, my man. Go to your place."

Then a shot rang out. Sedgwick fell on McMahon, a bullet having entered below his left eye. A doctor put canteen water on the bullet hole, but the blood kept flowing. Captain Richard Halstead felt for a pulse... nothing. Sedgwick's death had been quick and painless, his now lifeless countenance smiling.

George Stevens of the VI Corps summed up perfectly the general feelings among the officers and men had toward his passing: "Never had such gloom rested upon the army on account of the death of one man as came over it when the heavy tidings passed along the lines that General Sedgwick was killed." Ulysses S. Grant, General-in-Chief of the Armies of the United States, couldn't believe the news: To his aide Lieutenant Colonel Horace Porter he asked, "Is he really dead? Is he really dead?" Grant payed his friend the highest of compliments by stating that his death was comparable to that of an entire division.

Sources: 

Jones, Wilmer L. Generals in Blue and Gray. Westport, Conn: Praeger, 2004. Print. 
Rhea, Gordon C. The Battles for Spotsylvania Court House and the Road to Yellow Tavern, May 7-12, 1864. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. Print.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

John Gibbon Takes a Hard Line 1863

A tower of strength he is, cool as a steel knife, always...
One of Gibbon's admirers.

At Falmouth, Virginia on May 1, 1863, Union Brigadier General John Gibbon was awaiting orders to march against the enemy, Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, in what would eventually culminate in the Battle of Chancellorsville (actually, the engagement's first shots were fired that day). That does not mean that there was nothing exciting for him to pass the time. Indeed, word reached him that six companies of the 34th New York had mutinied, stacking their arms and arguing that their agreed upon two years of service had expired, contrary to what the War Department claimed. Gibbon ordered the 34th's brigade commander, Alfred Sully, to this mutiny, but Sully answered he couldn't.

What the mutineers forgot to take into account when they defied authority was John Gibbon- of whose Second Division, II Corps, Army of the Potomac the regiment was a part of. He had been born in Philadelphia in 1827 but had grown up in North Carolina. In 1842, still below the academy's minimum age requirement of 16, he joined West Point's class of 1846. The discrepancy, however, was found, and Gibbon moved up to the class of 1847, the one he graduated with. While he missed out on the Mexican War, Gibbon, who had been commissioned as an artilleryman, showed his skill in gunnery to the Seminoles in Florida. On the eve of Fort Sumter, Gibbon was giving artillery lessons at west.
Maj. Gen. John Gibbon by Matthew Brady.
When the eve became the aftermath, Gibbon, despite the fact that North Carolina seceded, decided to stay loyal to the Union. It was a decision that was particularly painful for him; three of his brothers fought for the Confederacy.

Nevertheless, Gibbon soldiered on. His first command in the Civil War was the famous Iron Brigade- a designation the unit received under his command- which he led at Second Manassas, South Mountain, and Antietam. What made the formation gain such a formidable reputation among the Rebels- "those damned black-hat fellers" was the phrase they used- was that Gibbon recognized that volunteers had to be handled differently from regulars. Whereas regulars had made a profession out of the army and had as much enthusiasm as they could possibly have, volunteers had not; hence, Gibbon decided to use the psychological technique of reinforcement, granting his Westerners more free time if they met his standard of soldiering on the training ground. As can be inferred from the bestowed upon the brigade, Gibbon was a tough man. He was characterized by one comrade as "Steel-cold General Gibbon, the most American of Americans, with his sharp nose and up-and-down manner of telling truth no matter whom it hurts."

Now commanding a division, the most American of Americans set out for the New Yorkers' camp, the 15th Massachusettes, which he considered to be one of the Army of the Potomac's best regiments, following. Upon his arrival, Gibbon told the protesters that while they might or might not have good reason to complain, they were mutinying and might as well be in cahoots with "the rebels on the other side of the river." If they did not cease their mutiny, he would have the New Englanders commence firing "and kill every man it could..." To avoid such a dishonorable death, Gibbon added, a mutineer must step forward, signaling his readiness to continue his service.

A couple advanced... then a few more... eventually all of them had stepped forward. Their hurrahs for their division commander were silenced, Gibbon telling them that only after they took up their rifles and equipment would he appreciate their adulations. The mutiny was over.

His work done, Gibbon rode off, "trembling at the thought of what might have happened..."