A panel of Civil War experts — from academia, the world of letters, archives, museums and assorted other sources — answer questions posed by The Washington Post during the war’s anniversary.

Jim Campi

The fall
of New Orleans

In the spring of 1862, public attention was fixated on the war in Virginia and Tennessee. Union offensives that began at Fort Donelson and Yorktown became bogged down on the bloody fields of Shiloh and the muddy roads of the Virginia peninsula. Meanwhile, farther to the south, a decisive battle was brewing that would transform the conflict.

At the time of secession, New Orleans was both the largest city and the busiest port in the Confederacy. Four masonry fortifications — including Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip on the Mississippi River — defended the water approaches to the city.

The Confederate Navy was also preparing a nasty reception for any Union fleet that dared challenge the city’s defenses. As 1862 began, the naval squadron protecting New Orleans was makeshift at best. Its most formidable vessel was a tiny, tortoise-shaped ironclad ram armed with a single cannon. However, two fearsome ironclads, the CSS Mississippi and CSS Louisiana, were under construction in Jefferson City, just north of New Orleans. If completed in time, they would make any Federal attack a bloody affair.

Union Flag Officer David G. Farragut, commander of the West Gulf Blockading Squadron, was determined to attack before the new ironclads were ready. In mid-April, he led a combined fleet of wooden warships and mortar gunboats up the Mississippi. A week-long bombardment of the two forts did little to subdue the Confederate defenses. On April 24, Farragut ordered his ships past the forts in a bold maneuver that eliminated them as a factor in the battle. The Rebel flotilla was quickly dispatched, with the unfinished Louisiana tied up along shore, unable to contribute much to the fight.

Once the forts were bypassed, New Orleans was all but lost. When Farragut’s fleet reached the city on April 25, the unusually high level of the river meant the Union warships dominated the town. The Confederate army quickly evacuated, leaving the city administration to dicker with Farragut over terms of surrender. The Louisiana state flag flying over City Hall was finally hauled down on April 28. Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip, left to die on the vine, surrendered the same day.

Although often overlooked in the whirlwind of events that occurred in 1862, the fall of New Orleans was decisive to the outcome of the war. It doomed the Confederacy by opening the lower Mississippi to Union forces and depriving the Southern war effort of foodstuffs and other supplies abundant in the Trans-Mississippi. Noted diarist Mary Boykin Chestnut wrote, “New Orleans is gone, and with it the Confederacy! Are we not cut in two?” The capture of New Orleans began the slow strangulation of the Confederacy that ended at Appomattox three years later.

Jim Campi is Policy and Communications Director at Civil War Trust.

Frank Williams

The Second
Confiscation Act

While much attention is paid to President Abraham Lincoln’s steps toward an emancipation policy, many ignore or do not appreciate the importance of Congress’s Second Confiscation Act. The legislation declared all rebels to be traitors and mandated confiscation of their property, including their slaves, within 60 days. It was passed July 11 and 12, 1862. Four days later, Lincoln, under increasing pressure from the Radical Republicans in Congress and now convinced that he had to adopt an emancipation policy, told Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles “that we must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued.”

Although Lincoln signed the bill, he sent objections to Congress as he believed that only he, as commander-in-chief, possessed the war power to emancipate. He also believed the act seized property (and the slaves were property), beyond the life of the owner in violation of the Constitution. This prohibition against bills of attainder, as they were called, was intended to benefit heirs of these property owners so they could acquire the forfeited property on the death of the original owner.

Many have argued that the Second Confiscation Act did not free a single slave because it could not be enforced until the Confederate territory was occupied. It also required a cumbersome judicial process. However, what those arguments ignored was that slaves were freed under the act’s Section 9, which declared all rebel-owned slaves who escaped to Union lines were “forever free of their servitude.” Therefore, the act was self-executing, since the Army was now prohibited from returning fugitives to disloyal owners.

Congress, through this legislation, pressed Lincoln to issue his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, as the act mandated that he seize the property of those still in rebellion after giving them a 60-day notice. Following the recommendation of Seward to wait for a Union victory, which finally came with the Battle of Antietam, he signed the proclamation on Sept. 22, 1862, with a final proclamation of emancipation to be issued on Jan. 1, 1863 for those areas still in rebellion. By doing so, Lincoln not only complied with the act but trumped the Radicals and abolitionists by making emancipation his policy.

Frank J. Williams is founding chairman of the Lincoln Forum.

Dennis Frye

It’s September 11th, 1862

Terror grips the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s country is under attack. Washington is worried. Philadelphia is panicked. New York is nervous. Cincinnati is quaking.

Confederate armies are advancing along a 1,000-mile front. From Pennsylvania to Ohio, Mississippi to Maryland, and Kentucky to western Virginia, coordinated Confederate offensives are threatening the United States. The largest cities in the Quaker State and Buckeye State appear to be the targets.

“Their destination is Harrisburg or Philadelphia,” exploded Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew Curtin in a distressed message to President Lincoln on September 11th. “Send here not less than 80,000 disciplined troops,” he demanded of the President. The governor issued this challenge to the President: “The time for decided action by the National Government has arrived. What may we expect?” Curtin’s plea ended with passion. “It is our only hope to save the North and crush the rebel army. . . . Do not suppose for one instant that I am unnecessarily alarmed.”

Five hundred miles west, Cincinnati prepared for Confederate attack. Ohio Governor David Tod’s emergency proclamation pounded with urgency. “Our Southern border is threatened with invasion,” he announced. “]Have] all the loyal men in your counties at once form themselves into companies and regiments, to beat back the enemy.”

Into this dire situation arrived Union Gen. Lew Wallace. Eighteen years before authoring “Ben Hur”, Wallace was writing orders to save Cincinnati from the Confederates. His first words were not poetic, but portending. “]It] is but fair to inform the citizens that an active, daring and powerful enemy threatens them with every consequence of war.”

Advantaged by a fermentation of fear, Wallace impressed all local citizens into fortification construction. “None are exempt, from the millionaires to the beggars,” revealed a correspondent. “This, of course causes some little grumbling among the upper classes.” He noted “their threats and growls do no good; go they must. . . . [T]hey who, perhaps never worked before, must work now.”

Back in Pennsylvania, a newspaper editor pondered the panic in Philadelphia, where no forts and no army existed to halt the surging Confederates. “Herein we discover one of the latent reasons why we have allowed this Rebellion to linger so long. We have not thought ourselves to be in danger.”

On September 11th, Confederate peace terms suddenly and dramatically appeared in Northern newspapers. What did this portend? Was the country on the verge of permanent division? Six days shy of the Constitution’s 86th birthday, were its opening words about to become an artifact? “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”

Dennis Frye is the Chief Historian at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.

Robert Lee Hodge

Three battles

There are numerous “black holes” of Civil War history (military and otherwise) in the period between Shiloh and Antietam. However, three battles or campaigns come to mind that do not get the attention they deserve.

The siege of Corinth, Miss., that took place in May 1862 is at the top of my list in the west. The railroad hub of Corinth was the reason Shiloh was fought. President Abraham Lincoln’s military advisers felt that Corinth was as important as taking the Confederate capital at Richmond. Moving troops and supplies fast by the new technology of railroads made Corinth a military magnet. About 120,000 Union troops laid siege to Corinth for over a month against 70,000 rebels – no small affair. Corinth was one of the largest military operations of the war. Rebel forces eventually abandoned Corinth, leaving the Confederacy further severed.

Close to the same time as Corinth, back east in Virginia, The Seven Days battles for Richmond were fought between Union commander George McClellan’s 120,000 soldiers and Robert E. Lee’s 90,000 Confederates. Lee launched savage and desperate attacks on McClellan’s Northerners, resulting in a Union retreat, leaving 36,000 casualties in their wake. The Seven Days battles consist of some familiar names — Beaver Dam Creek (Mechanicsville), Gaines Mill, Savages Station, Frayser’s Farm (Glendale) and Malvern Hill. One reason these battles are so overlooked is that they were so massive and complicated that there is a tendency to simplistically give broad brush strokes of that information.

The Southern success in The Seven Days gave Lee the opportunity to face another advancing Northern army led by John Pope, culminating in the Second Battle of Manassas in August 1862, which may be the true “High Tide” of the Southern Confederacy. One reason Second Manassas is somewhat lost to history is because it is simply the second battle fought at Bull Run — thus overshadowed by the first battle. The truth is it may be the most underrated major battle of the war. The engagement was a Confederate avalanche that sent Pope’s troops reeling and threatened the nearby U.S. capital once again. The stunning Southern victory at Second Manassas would launch Lee’s army across the Potomac River to “liberate” slave-holding Maryland from Lincoln’s control, leading to the deadliest day on American soil – Antietam.

Juxtapose Second Manassas with what was happening across the South in the late summer of 1862; Confederates were advancing toward Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, western Virginia and even Ohio. Rebel forces were attempting to recapture Baton Rouge and Corinth. At that moment you had the most coordinated effort by the Confederacy to win its independence. The High Tide crests with Southern defeats on all fronts – thus giving Lincoln the ability to announce the Emancipation Proclamation.

Robert Lee Hodge is a Civil War researcher, filmmaker and reenactor.

William Blair

A blow to free speech

Everyone knows about President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, but fewer people appreciate that this famous edict of the president constituted but one of two important pronouncements by the chief executive in the fall of 1862. Both of them had a large impact on the political situation.

Two days after his Sept. 22 warning that emancipation would come for the enslaved in the Confederacy in 90 days, Lincoln issued a proclamation that gave the federal authorities wide powers to arrest civilians without the need for trials or even the filing of charges. Since mid-summer, the administration had conducted a recruitment drive referred to as the Militia Draft because it relied on the states — and not the national government — to meet federally established quotas for furnishing troops. Because resistance had occurred, and some people openly argued against these efforts, the government in August had begun arresting individuals who spoke out against the draft or tried to influence others from enlisting. Lincoln’s Sept. 24 waiving of habeas corpus sanctioned what had been happening around the Union for a number of weeks, with an untold number of civilians swept into prison via arrests often conducted by the military.

The period from August to November has been characterized as “the low point of civil liberties in the North during the Civil War.” Free speech was abused as civilians faced arrests for speaking out against the draft. Excessive arrests inevitably occurred as low-level functionaries settled personal scores with rivals. After the midterm congressional elections took place, the administration seemingly acknowledged the policy had gone too far by ordering a general release of the prisoners of state.

At the time, the policy worried some Republicans because it added fuel to a surging Democratic opposition in the North. Emancipation angered many who considered the policy revolutionary and ignoring property rights. A general unhappiness with the progress of the war and the use of arrests helped feed momentum. In New York, George Templeton Strong — a supporter of Lincoln — hoped the period did not signal the coming of a national calamity. “If it come,” he wrote in his diary, “it will be due not so much to the Emancipation Manifesto as to the irregular arrests the government has been making.” Strong exaggerated to an extent, but the arrests then and later did give Democrats a consistent critique that found its way into their 1864 presidential platform.

Overall, Lincoln’s handling of civil liberties — while overbearing at times — has been mostly forgiven by scholars. Traitorous plots did exist and the arrests of prisoners of state occurred primarily in the sensitive Border States and occupied Confederacy. And as the country became more secure late in the war, the president eased his foot off this pedal. But this moment in 1862 remains one of the more under-appreciated parts of his administration by the public.

William Blair is director of the Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University.

John F. Marszalek

The Homestead Act

When Civil War enthusiasts consider this war, they usually think only of its military battles. During 1862, for example, such events like Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh, and Antietam followed by Lincoln’s promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation come to mind. Between Shiloh and Antietam, however, there is no major battle, so enthusiasts see little to study. Yet during that period, Congress passed and President Lincoln signed important legislation which reflected an issue separating the nation before the war began and one which was influential long after the war was over.

Early in the nation’s history, Thomas Jefferson insisted that the nation would only survive if it was based on the small landholder. As the 19th century progressed, however, industrialization and urbanism developed rapidly so the Jeffersonian dream seemed to be deteriorating. Instead of being based on the independent freeholder, American society was increasingly being divided into the wealthy haves of the industrial elite and the downtrodden have-nots of the factory worker. To rescue the American dream, the working class needed a chance to live an economically, politically, and socially valid life.

The answer, northern reformers believed, was to create more landholders, by opening acreage in the empty West to eastern workers. As early as the 1840s, Congress worked on legislation to allow federal land to be sold for low prices. By 1852, however, proponents called for land to be available for free. Congress passed such homestead legislation in 1860, but President James Buchanan vetoed it in response to southern opposition. Like so much else in the years leading to war, this idea was caught up in the slavery issue. Southerners opposed it because they worried that homesteading would build up the anti-slavery states and become a threat to the southern slavery system.

The Homestead Act did not have the effect expected. Most western land ended up in the hands of speculators and railroads, not Jeffersonian freeholders. The Act did move eastern population west and helped finance the building of railroads linking the nation, fueled the exchange of huge sums of money among speculators who purchased the land from those who gained it under the law, and served as an idyllic image of the possibilities of American life. It remained in effect until the 1970s.

A view of the Civil War from a strictly battlefield perspective, then, ignores the major impact of such events like the 1862 Homestead Act. This law does not have the romantic appeal of troops charging into battle, but it had a major impact on the growth of the nation. Like other non-military matters, between 1861-1865, it deserves interest and study.

John Marszalek is Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University.

Waite Rawls

Jackson’s Maneuvers

John Mosby was the man who earned the nickname “Gray Ghost,” as he seemed continually to appear where he was least expected, and usually behind Federal lines. But he got this nickname during the last two years of the war. Between March and September 1862, it was Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s men who were rumored to be everywhere and who continued to appear where least expected. Because they were often seen near Washington city, they struck fear into the people of the North, not least of whom was Abraham Lincoln.

Although Jackson had won fame at the first big battle at Manassas, he was not in the limelight in the spring of 1862, as all eyes had turned to George McClellan on the Virginia Peninsula. In their first cooperative effort, Robert E. Lee and Jackson mounted an effort to distract the Federals from their Richmond objective. Jackson’s small army earned its sobriquet as the “foot cavalry” by marching rapidly down (northward) the Valley to strike the Federals near Winchester at Kernstown, two weeks before Shiloh. Jackson’s men were defeated in this battle and retired quickly only to reappear a month later and strike again with a vengeance, defeating two different Federal armies at McDowell, Front Royal, and Winchester, alarming Lincoln and forcing him to recall troops from McClellan in order to defend Washington City.

Jackson headed south toward Richmond but not before defeating two more Federal armies at Port Republic and Cross Keys in early June. The leadership in Washington began to speculate about where Jackson’s men would strike next, but no one thought that they would reappear on June 26th, back east with Lee at Mechanicsville. Their mere arrival, seemingly from nowhere, unnerved George McClellan; and, despite Jackson’s disappointing tactical performance, McClellan began his retreat from the outskirts of Richmond.

Both armies took a couple of weeks to rest and refit, but Jackson moved his men rapidly in early August and again struck from nowhere, this time at Slaughter Mountain, effectively stopping John Pope’s new Federal army in its advance on Richmond. As Lee moved the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia to join Jackson, Stonewall’s men did it again. Moving very rapidly around Pope’s flank, they struck his rear at Manassas Junction, capturing an enormous supply depot. A day later, they sprang a surprise attack on Pope’s retreating columns, precipitating the Second Battle of Manassas.

Lee’s army then moved into Maryland, but Jackson’s men did it again — suddenly appearing on the hills around Harpers Ferry and forcing the surrender of more than 12,000 Union troops.

No one thought foot soldiers could move that quickly and appear that suddenly at a critical point. They were the true Gray Ghosts who were the most feared in Washington.

Waite Rawls is president and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy.

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