Overlooked stories of the Civil War

April 29, 2013
John Stauffer
Hooker’s Defeat

Author and professor of English and the history of American civilization at Harvard University

When Lincoln heard the news of Gen. Joseph Hooker’s defeat at Chancellorsville on May 6, 1863, with 17,000 casualties, his face turned ashen. “My God! My God!” he moaned. “What will the country say?” It said it wanted an immediate end to the war, as reflected by the dramatic rise of the “Copperhead” peace movement in the summer of 1863.

Amid the news of Hooker’s defeat, Clement Vallandigham, the leader of the peace movement, was arrested at his home in Dayton, Ohio, for fomenting treason. In speeches, he had encouraged resistance to conscription, which had recently been passed, and declared that war was being waged to free blacks and enslave whites.

In the wake of Vallandigham’s arrest, Copperheads rioted throughout the North. They set fire to Republican newspaper offices, attacked conscription officers, and killed blacks. The July riots in New York and Boston were so intense that Union troops had to be called in to restore order.

The tide of war begins to turn in favor of the Union

With Vallandigham silenced, two unlikely Copperhead voices emerged in the summer of 1863: former president Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Pierce and Hawthorne had met as students at Bowdoin College and for the rest of their lives remained close friends and staunch Democrats. Both men hated the Lincoln administration and emancipation.

Pierce called Lincoln the “instrument for all the evil” in the nation, and the Emancipation Proclamation “the climax of folly & wickedness” because it invited blacks “to slay & devastate without regard to age or sex.” He wanted peace and the Union as it was — with slavery.

Hawthorne preferred peace with “amputation,” hoping that the Confederacy would remain a separate slaveholding nation. Like Pierce, he thought that masters and slaves lived together in “peace and affection.”

Confederates viewed Copperheads as allies, funding their newspapers and encouraging their leaders. Gen. Robert E. Lee told President Jefferson Davis “to give all the encouragement we can . . . to the rising peace party of the North.”

On July 4, Pierce delivered an oration at Concord, N.H., with Hawthorne at his side. “Any of you,” he told the crowd of 25,000, “may be the next victim of unconstitutional, arbitrary, irresponsible power.” He urged resistance to Republican rule.

Pierce’s speech remained so popular that many Democrats urged him to run for president in 1864. Hawthorne loved the speech and dedicated his new book, “Our Old Home,” to Pierce, declaring that “no man’s loyalty [was] more steadfast.”

Noted author Stephen W. Sears of Landscape Turned Red and Civil War buff Gene Thorp square off over Gen. George B. McClellan’s place in history.

Hawthorne’s abolitionist friends were outraged by his dedication. “Do tell me if our friend Hawthorne praises that arch traitor Pierce in his preface & your loyal firm publishes it,” Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Hawthorne’s editor. “Patronize such a traitor to our faces! I can scarcely believe it.”

Other Hawthorne admirers followed the example of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who simply “cut out the dedication,” thus separating what he considered Hawthorne’s ignoble politics from his beautiful art.

Waite Rawls
What Didn’t Happen

President and chief executive of the Museum of the Confederacy

In the summer of 1862, Robert E. Lee took the Army of Northern Virginia away from the defenses of Richmond on a campaign that ended in Maryland, leaving Richmond and Petersburg virtually undefended and George McClellan’s Army of the Potomac licking its wounds at Harrison’s Landing. McClellan did nothing with the opportunity to move on Richmond.

In early June 1863, Lee did it again. He abandoned his lines on the Rappahannock River, moving westward and northward in a campaign that ended in Pennsylvania. He recalled James Longstreet’s First Corps from the vicinity of Suffolk, Va., and all of the men he could muster from eastern North Carolina, leaving approaches to Richmond defended by a thin screen of nothing more than skirmishers.

Tens of thousands of Federals were in Suffolk but did not advance and take Petersburg. Tens of thousands more were at Fort Monroe and Williamsburg but did not advance in force on the Peninsula toward Richmond. And Joseph Hooker took the entire Army of the Potomac with him to chase Lee into Pennsylvania, rather than dispatching a force southward.

Perhaps the best example of the opportunity squandered was the raid by Union Col. Samuel Spear in late June. Landing with 1,200 men at White House, on the York River, and advancing along the south side of the Pamunkey and South Anna rivers, he intended to disrupt Lee’s supply communications with Richmond. Lee had left one regiment from Johnston Pettigrew’s North Carolina Brigade — the 44th North Carolina Troops — strung out along those rivers to protect bridges and fords. On June 26, Spear ran into Company A of the 44th NCT at a railroad bridge, where the Virginia Central R.R. crossed the South Anna River. Fifty Tarheels held off 1,200 Federal cavalrymen for four hours before finally being overrun and taking 100 percent casualties. The Union horsemen destroyed the bridge, but then returned to where they had started with little to show for their efforts other than capturing Robert E. Lee’s son, Confederate Gen. Rooney Lee, who was recuperating from wounds suffered at Brandy Station.

Confederates quickly rebuilt the bridge, the railroad supply line was reopened, and Richmond was left untouched. Sometimes, what did not happen is as important as what did happen. In this case, the bluecoats did not take Richmond when they had the opportunity, and that is the most overlooked story of the summer of 1863.

Harold Holzer
Lincoln, Man of Surprises

Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society and author of the new book, “The Civil War in 50 Objects

To my mind — no surprise — the greatest untold story between May and September 1863 involved Abraham Lincoln’s ability to craft, and discard, words. Part of Lincoln’s talent for communication came not only from what he said in public, but what he revised to improve it; not only what he wrote in his famous letters, but what he discarded.

What made him such a master of the language was his understanding of the power of words, and his ability to enhance, control and self-censor what he said. The most illustrative cases in point, I think, were inspired by the conflict that shook the town of Gettysburg on July 1-3. Four days later, a crowd gathered at the White House to serenade the president, and called for a speech.

Lincoln replied from the heart — but off the cuff: “How long ago is it? — eighty-odd years — since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’ ”

Cheers followed, and Lincoln surely knew at once that he was onto something important.

But rather than further develop his thoughts without more consideration, he stopped, noting: “This is the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.”

Four months later, that opportunity came — at Gettysburg itself — where Lincoln memorably revised his opening lines into a style that approached Holy Scripture: “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers. . .

Gettysburg could elicit anger from Lincoln, too, and on July 14 he wrote a brutal letter to Gen. George G. Meade criticizing his failure to pursue Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army. “I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape,” he complained.

“He was within your grasp, and to have closed upon him would . . . have ended the war . . . and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

But Lincoln knew when to remain silent as surely as he knew when to rewrite. He folded up the Meade letter and stored it in his desk, marking it “never sent, or signed.” It was enough simply to get his disappointment off his chest.

Yet Lincoln was never predictable. When he learned that one of the Union’s most dangerous foes had been killed after Chancellorsville, he dashed off what sounded like a “fan letter,” praising a Washington newspaper for its “excellent and manly article on ‘Stonewall Jackson.’ ”

Lincoln the writer was full of surprises — and never more so than in the summer and early autumn of 1863.

John Marszalek
Milliken’s Bend

Giles distinguished professor emeritus of history at Mississippi State University

It was not an easy matter deciding just what the role of black men was to be in the Federal military. When President Abraham Lincoln promulgated the final Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, he dealt with the issue. He legalized the use of African Americans in the U.S. Army.

The motion picture “Glory” chronicled the bravery that black soldiers demonstrated in battle, showing the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (Colored) charging to their deaths at Battery Wagner, S.C., on July 18, 1863. Black troops, doubted by white soldiers, proved their valor and martial abilities by facing heavy fire and unflinchingly suffering terrible losses for the Union cause.

The question whether African Americans made good soldiers had already been demonstrated earlier, however, although no motion picture has ever been made of these efforts. It was during the campaign of Ulysses S. Grant against Vicksburg, Miss., that recently recruited black slaves, with little military training and supplied with inferior equipment, proved their mettle at Milliken’s Bend, La., on June 7, 1863.

Confederate officers had convinced themselves that the only way to stop Grant’s siege and ultimate victory at Vicksburg was to destroy his supply line some 15 miles north, at Milliken’s Bend on the Mississippi River. They did not realize that Grant had already moved his supply line from the west side of the River to the eastern side. Confederates launched an all-out attack against the original supply base. Black troops, guarding this area, fought off the Confederate attackers despite facing overwhelming numbers and having received little training. The black soldiers received withering fire, but they courageously kept fighting.

This battle was a small one, as Civil War battles go, yet it was one of tremendous importance.

Milliken’s Bend proved to skeptical Federal officers and soldiers that black men could indeed fight. Although an unknown battle, it opened the way for a fuller use of black manpower.

By the end of the war, nearly 200,000 blacks fought in the Federal military. Charles A. Dana, whom Secretary of War Edwin Stanton had sent to Mississippi to spy on Grant, reported back to Washington after this engagement: “The sentiment in regard to the employment of negro troops has been revolutionized by the bravery of the blacks in the recent battle of Milliken’s Bend.”

From that day forward, through Fort Wagner to the end of the conflict, African Americans played a major role in the Union war effort.

Few people remember the battle at Milliken’s Bend today, but it was a crucial event leading to essential black participation in the Federal triumph. It deserves much more attention.

Robert Lee Hodge
Tullahoma Campaign

Regional Emmy award-winning filmmaker, writer, preservationist and reenactor

The most obvious military operation that is grossly underrated is the Tullahoma Campaign. It began on June 24, 1863, in the area south of Murfreesboro, Tenn., with a massive Federal offensive launched by Union Gen. William Rosecrans’s 60,000-strong Army of the Cumberland. The Yankee objective was to outmaneuver and “turn” their Rebel opponent’s flank that was on a strong defensive line in mountainous terrain and force retreat. This effort would edge the Federals closer to the capture of the important nearby railroad hub of Chattanooga. The Federal capture of Chattanooga would be another coffin nail in a shrinking Confederacy. Opposing Rosecrans’s Federal troops were 45,000 toughened Rebels in the Army of Tennessee under the command of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a masterful series of movements and deception, Rosecrans was able to pry Bragg’s Rebels from the all-important gaps into the mountainous country. Through these movements, juxtaposed with Bragg’s well-known lack of leadership and cooperation with subordinate generals in his command, the Rebels were “outflanked” time and again until Chattanooga — the fast-rail center of the then cutting-edge technology of trains and an obvious military objective — was eventually abandoned.

What Rosecrans was able to accomplish was a huge military feat. His massive Federal army moved from Murfreesboro, 45 miles to the southeast, to Tullahoma in 10 days, over ground that would normally be considered prime real estate for battle, yet Rosecrans spilled little blood, sustaining only 600 casualties and inflicting 2,500 on Bragg’s Rebels. Lincoln wrote, “The flanking of Bragg at Shelbyville, Tullahoma and Chattanooga is the most splendid piece of strategy I know of.” A Union general said, “If any student of the military art desires to make a study of a model campaign . . . . No better example of successful strategy was carried out during the war than in the Tullahoma campaign.”

Rosecrans did not receive many accolades. The day the Tullahoma Campaign ended was the day Gettysburg and Vicksburg were coming to successful ends for the Union. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton telegraphed Rosecrans, “Lee's Army overthrown; Grant victorious. You and your noble army now have a chance to give the finishing blow to the rebellion. Will you neglect the chance?” Rosecrans was shocked by this attitude and responded, “Just received your cheering telegram announcing the fall of Vicksburg and confirming the defeat of Lee. You do not appear to observe the fact that this noble army has driven the rebels from middle Tennessee. . . . I beg in behalf of this army that the War Department may not overlook so great an event because it is not written in letters of blood.”

Brag Bowling
The New York Draft Riots of 1863

Director of the Stephen D. Lee Institute, an educational group established by the Sons of Confederate Veterans

Sandwiched between two of the greatest Confederate victories, Chancellorsville and Chickamauga, was the fierce urban warfare of July 13-16, 1863, in New York City. Modern historians would lead one to believe that the racist lower-class Irish and Germans were taking out their frustrations on defenseless black people. In some ways this was true, but there was much more to this story; the Draft Riots represented an attempt to bring the war north, perhaps in coordination with the Gettysburg campaign of July 1-3. The most violent and destructive example of civil insurrection in American history provides graphic testimony to the extent of Northern opposition to Lincoln and the war, the Republican Party, emancipation and forced federalized conscription.

The Draft Riots germinated out of opposition to the undemocratic wartime policies of the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party. Mass arrests of political opponents denying the fundamental right of habeas corpus; the silencing of newspaper opposition by jailing editors and reporters and closing down newspapers; and the use of military tribunals to try civilians helped set the stage for the riotous atmosphere encountered in New York in 1863. Opposition to both the Emancipation Proclamation and the Conscription (Draft) Act of 1863 galvanized the working class against Lincoln’s plans. These working-class people opposed being drafted as pawns fighting in the killing fields to free slaves who would then compete with them for jobs. Strong states’ rights advocates such as Peace Democrat Gov. Horatio Seymour and the ex- mayor of New York, Fernando Wood, publicly and strongly opposed Lincoln and his policies.

To say that these riots were spontaneous is disingenuous. It certainly appears that the four days of rioting were planned, coordinated and well led. The disruption of telegraph and rail communications, burning of bridges to prevent reinforcements, military-style formations and the destruction of key government and public buildings led to a battle royal that might be compared to the epic urban fighting of World War II. It has been estimated that as many as 50,000 people participated in the rioting. When the Union Army arrived from Gettysburg to rescue the city from the mobs, the extent of casualties was unknown, but some historians place them in the range of Gettysburg and Antietam, making the Draft Riots one of the deadliest events of the war.

When the melee was stopped by the Union Army on July 16, the state of New York was looked at suspiciously for years, and a strong military presence continued in the city to watch over its citizens and help supervise elections.

style@washpost.com

Frank Williams

After this major defeat, the aging Chief Justice grew feeble and was able to attend court only a few days during the 1863-64 terms. He died in October, 1864.

Founding Chairman of the Lincoln Forum

headline: Emancipation and the Taney Court

Slavery and the Civil War pitted two great legal minds against each other. Although Chief Justice Roger B. Taney had issued what many consider the worst decision in Supreme Court history — the Dred Scott decision of 1857 — legal scholars still rank him overall as one of the greatest justices in American history.

Taney’s timing was horribly off in the Dred Scott case, in which his radical judicial activism contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. It failed to improve before his death in late 1864, while Abraham Lincoln’s was right on the mark.

Lincoln took his time in marshaling his forces against Taney. He had three vacancies to fill and was careful to appoint people who would support his policies.

A couple of Lincoln’s generals were overactive as battlefield abolitionists. The president had to countermand the emancipation decisions of John Frémont and David Hunter. After listening to his fellow lawyer-statesman William Seward, Lincoln delayed the issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation until after a Union success on the battlefield. And then on January 1, 1863, all slaves within the areas in rebellion against the federal government were declared free insofar as federal forces could make them free as they advanced and occupied Confederate territory.

Even then, one of the dissenters in the Dred Scott case, Associate Justice Benjamin Curtis, considered the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional since it undermined property rights guaranteed by the Constitution, as did the “Great Emancipator” himself. Steven Spielberg’s great movie, Lincoln, makes this clear.

Taney’s response at this time has been overlooked. At the age of 86, the once creative Jacksonian defender was out of sync with the times and the Republican Party. He considered Lincoln a despot and did all he could to thwart the commander-in-chief. Taney had already drafted unofficial opinions declaring the federal government’s new paper money and military conscription unconstitutional. Many believed the old Chief Justice had also drafted a preliminary opinion finding the Emancipation Proclamation unconstitutional and even leaked it to the press.

As it turned out, these issues never reached the Taney Court, but it was a close call. Lincoln’s three appointees to the Court — Noah Swayne, Samuel Miller and David Davis — checkmated Taney’s efforts. After hearing oral arguments in December 1862, the Court issued its opinion in the so-called Prize Cases on March 10, 1863 in a five to four decision with the Chief Justice in dissent. Not only did it uphold the blockade of southern ports and administration war policy, it emancipated Lincoln from Taney.

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