A stealthy slaughter
Retired subject area expert
for the U.S. Civil War
at the National Archives
It may not have surprised many of those blown into eternity at City Point, Va., on Aug. 9, 1864, that their deaths produced no great outpouring of grief across the Union. After all, there had been much dying in the Old Dominion and elsewhere. Moreover, the explosion was chalked up to an accident, the result of carelessness in the loading of ordnance onto a barge at the huge supply base on the James River that was created to enable the siege of Petersburg, key to Richmond. And most of those killed were civilian laborers rather than soldiers.
Few on the scene suspected the truth. The ghastly explosion that sank a supply ship and two ammunition vessels, leveled warehouses, killed or mangled an estimated 250 people and rained down splinters and shell fragments on commanding officer Gen. Ulysses. S. Grant was no accident. It was the result of a “horological torpedo” — a time bomb — handed off to an unsuspecting Union sentry to be given to the barge captain by Confederate agent John Maxwell.
Not until June 1865, long after many basketfuls of body parts had been collected, was Maxwell’s official report of his deed found among enemy archives. Only then did it become certain that it was a premeditated act of the Confederate Secret Service.
The significance of the explosion at City Point became apparent with the passage of time. It brings into focus what the Civil War had become as it ground on: a vast technological and logistical endeavor pursued with ever increasing bitterness. There had been other attempts to blast foes to smithereens, not least the recent federal attempt that led to what became known as the Crater. But that action involved only uniformed soldiers in what had become an accepted part of sieges. It was becoming increasingly clear that the war had taken on its own logic of retribution, independent of its original cause.
One need not search too long amid the devastation at City Point to discern harbingers of the wars of our own time. Sadly, IEDs, drones and other means of remote-controlled killing have been known to result in statements akin to one in Maxwell’s after-action report, “ . . . party of ladies . . . was killed by this explosion. It is saddening to me to realize the fact that the terrible effects of war induce such consequences, but when I remember the ordeal to which our own women have been subjected, and the barbarians of the enemy’s crusade against us and them, my feelings are relieved by the reflection that this catastrophe was not intended by us, it amounts only, in the providence of God, to just retaliation.”
John F. Marszalek
‘In God We Trust’
The Giles distinguished
professor emeritus of history
at Mississippi State University
In 1956 during the Cold War, the U.S. Congress passed and President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a resolution mandating the words “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United States.
In fact, though, these words were actually the product of the Civil War. On Nov. 13, 1861, a minister from a small town in Pennsylvania urged Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase to place on American coins an indication that the United States was a Christian nation whose God supported its battle against the slave-holding South.
Chase immediately ordered James Pollock, the director of the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, to devise a motto to place on American coins. The problem was that Congress, since January 1837, had held authority over the inscription of coins. It was not until December 1863 that Pollock sent to Chase his suggested design for new 1-cent, 2-cent and 3-cent coins. He suggested the motto “Our Country; Our God” or “God, Our Trust.” Chase liked the design, but changed the words to “In God We Trust.”
Four months later, on April 22, 1864, Congress passed a law that few historians know anything about, even today. The legislation authorized a 2-cent coin with this motto on it. On March 3, 1865, Congress expanded permission for the motto to appear on a variety of gold and silver coins. Ironically, it was just a day later that President Abraham Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address, which Frederick Douglass considered more “like a sermon than like a state paper.” In this speech, Lincoln did not make any direct comments about signing the legislation for the change, but it demonstrates that Lincoln believed that God envisioned the war as a cleansing agent for the entire sinful nation, whereas others might have supported the motto as a statement of the deity’s endorsement of the federal war effort.
The motto lived a quiet existence, used on some American coinage but not congressionally mandated. In 1907, Theodore Roosevelt called its presence on coins sacrilegious: God’s name was on money being spent in bars, brothels and gambling establishments, he said. Congress saw this as an attack on religion and ordered the motto included on all gold and silver coins. The 1956 law then required it on all currency.
No Civil War legislation has influenced the nation for so long a time as this motto. In 2011, the House of Representatives reaffirmed it, and a variety of court cases pop up regularly calling for its elimination. Some Americans take it less seriously, however. Over the years, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash” has appeared on signs in more than a few mercantile shops.
Rebel exploits in Canada
Director of the
Richards Civil War Era Center
at Penn State University
Canada may be a friendly neighbor today, but during the Civil War it posed a concern for national security. The U.S. government eyed Canada — made up of separate colonies of Great Britain until confederation in 1867 — as an area to watch for possible saboteurs. At no time was this truer than the spring through fall of 1864, as the Confederate government sent agents there to create mayhem in the upper North through a variety of plots that included a terrorist strike to burn down hotels in New York City.
In March 1864, Confederate leaders sent agents north to attempt to release its prisoners of war in the Midwest, control the Great Lakes, encourage anti-war sentiment and perhaps influence the presidential election. The Confederacy tapped former secretary of the interior Jacob Thompson, ex-U.S. senator Clement C. Clay and University of Virginia professor James P. Holcombe, among others, to conduct operations in Canada. Most of the plans seemed fanciful at best.
Using Montreal and Toronto as meeting places, Thompson and his colleagues established contact with leading Copperheads — Democrats who sought peace. The Confederates courted secret societies known as the Sons of Liberty to advocate peace sentiment and enlist supporters for releasing prisoners of war from Camp Douglas in Chicago and other parts of the Midwest. The idea was to create an uprising that might result in a Northwest Confederacy. But if the effort merely forced the U.S. to shift troops or affected the presidential election, that would suffice.
Nearly every plan failed. One involved the gunboat Michigan, which Confederates hoped to capture by slipping drugs into the officers’ wine. An informant betrayed the leaders. Similarly, the plans to liberate prisoners of war in Indiana and Illinois failed as support from disgruntled citizens in the U.S. never materialized. And the effort to burn down hotels in New York City, carried out in November 1864, fizzled because of the inexperience of the men in working with Greek fire, a flammable substance that was the 19th-century equivalent of napalm.
One effort had some success. Raiders robbed three banks in St. Alban’s, Vt., in October 1864 to get money for the Confederate cause and, possibly, divert Union troops to the Canadian border. The raiders made off with a nice haul, but some of it was returned to the banks after the men were arrested in Canada. However, the Canadian government refused to turn the men over to U.S. authorities.
After the war, Canada continued to provide a haven for Confederate expatriates. Notables such as Gens. Jubal Early and John C. Breckinridge lived there until it became clear that the U.S. government would not prosecute them for treason.
Robert Lee Hodge
Civil War researcher,
filmmaker and reenactor
In the East during the opening 50 days of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign to capture Richmond, 50,000 Federal soldiers fell to Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Southerners. The first massive battle in that campaign was at the Wilderness, and because it was the first battle and casualties were 30,000, it may be the most well-known battle of 1864.
Less known is another one that was also costly and took place nearby. Just a day after the Wilderness ended, a 13-day engagement erupted at Spotsylvania Court House. At that battle Gen. John Sedgwick was killed. He was the highest-ranking Union general to be killed during the war.
Also at that battle, Confederate chieftain Lee personally led his troops into combat three times, an unheard-of action. In this battle as well, Confederates fought against Federal black troops for the first time.
Although it was a major battle, and part of it is in a military park, less than 10 percent of the Spotsylvania Court House battlefield is protected from development.
This battle should be known for its 22 hours of continuous massive, animalistic combat at “the Bloody Angle” in an area known as the Mule Shoe on May 12, 1864.
A Mississippian said of that fighting, “We could hardly tell one another apart. No Mardi Gras Carnival ever devised such a diabolical set of devils. It was no imitation of red paint and burn cork, but genuine human gore and powder smoke that came from guns belching death at close range.” He was next to a 22-inch diameter oak tree that was felled by rifle fire — that stump now resides in the Smithsonian as a testament to the carnage.
Along a six-mile front, 175,000 Americans committed fratricide in a series of subsection battles that raged around Spotsylvania: on May 8 at Laurel Hill, May 10 at Waite’s Shop and Po River, Laurel Hill again, Upton’s Mule Shoe attack and Fredericksburg Road, May 12 at the Mule Shoe, May 14 at Myer’s Hill, May 18 at the Harrison House and May 19 at Harris Farm. Grant disengaged on May 21.
There is no visitors center at Spotsylvania battlefield. The National Park Service, because of budgetary restraints, has only one visitors center for the Wilderness, Spotsylvania and the nearby 1863 Chancellorsville battlefield. None gets the individual attention it deserves, and all are marginalized by being combined.
Spotsylvania is known as the fifth-bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
A veteran of the famed Union Iron Brigade said Gettysburg was a mere skirmish compared to Spotsylvania.
The day Lee was sick
Editor of Civil War Times magazine
On May 24, 1864, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia faced each other along the North Anna River, roughly where modern Route 1 crosses the watercourse just a few miles north of King’s Dominion amusement park.
Robert E. Lee had cleverly positioned his army in an inverted “V,” pulling the two wings of his army back and leaving the point of the V on the North Anna. He did so to trick Union commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who oversaw Maj. Gen. George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac, into thinking the Confederates were in retreat.
It worked. “The enemy have fallen back,” Grant telegraphed Washington, and the blue columns began crossing the river. Grant did not realize that Lee’s army was ready for him and that he was unintentionally splitting his superior force on both sides of the V with the river to its back.
If Lee could spring the trap, he could pin down one half of the Union army while destroying the other half. But the Rebel leader was sick with severe intestinal issues as the Union troops crossed on pontoon bridges. Lee lay on a cot, murmuring throughout the day, “We must never let them pass again — we must strike them a blow.”
But that blow never came. Lee’s lieutenants did not launch the necessary attacks and Grant finally sensed his predicament. The Federal troops entrenched and erected additional pontoon bridges to protect their lines of retreat. By May 26, the Army of the Potomac had pulled back across the North Anna.
The proceeding May bloodbaths of the Wilderness and Spotsylvania and the early June attacks at Cold Harbor often overshadow the May 24 incident along the North Anna. But if Lee had succeeded in crushing half of the Army of the Potomac, it would have changed the tenor of the war in the east.
The Union host would have had to pull back and cede the initiative to the Army of Northern Virginia. The Confederate force had been battered, but it could still land a blow. If Grant and Meade had turned around, how would the Northern public, already staggered by lengthy casualty lists, have reacted?
Grant and Meade’s relationship had been strained for weeks. A defeat on the North Anna would surely have caused another command shake-up in the Army of the Potomac, further delaying the start of another Union offensive.
The war, many say, was won in the Western Theater. But if it were not for the illness of the Rebel chieftain on May 24, 1864, historians may have said the war was won in the East.
Lincoln’s secret memo
Author or editor of 40 books, many on Lincoln, and chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation
In a year of military and political slugfests large and small, nearly all of them closely observed and widely reported, it is difficult to find an important but overlooked story from mid-1864. But perhaps none was stranger, yet at a certain level more illuminating, than Abraham Lincoln’s “secret memorandum” of Aug. 23.
Though he had easily won renomination 10 weeks earlier, Lincoln’s reelection chances by late summer looked dismal. Union casualties in Virginia were skyrocketing, without military success. Several of the president’s key supporters were coming to the realization that likely Democratic nominee George B. McClellan would beat Lincoln in November. Secretary of State William H. Seward told Lincoln frankly that his “re-election was an impossibility,” adding glumly that “nobody here doubts it.”
By Aug. 23, having just received yet another bleak assessment of his chances for a second term, Lincoln no longer had the strength to disagree. Instead, he sat right down and wrote himself a letter: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to co-operate with the President-elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such grounds that he can not possibly save it afterwards.”
Then Lincoln did something extraordinary: He sealed shut the memo with glue and, without revealing its contents, asked his Cabinet secretaries to sign it sight unseen. Remarkably enough, they did so — to a man — apparently with no questions asked, quite a sign of respect (or pity) from that fractious group.
Lincoln later explained that he fully expected McClellan to beat him in November, but then planned to ask him to raise more troops and “finish the war,” and with it, he implied, secure black freedom. McClellan might — as always — hesitate. “At least,” the president explained, “I should have done my duty and have stood clear before my own conscience.” He had committed himself — and his entire administration — to fight unrelentingly during the four months between Election and Inauguration Day, even if the people had rejected him. He would not be the kind of lame duck President James Buchanan was — ignoring the crisis and handing it, unresolved, to his successor.
A week later, McClellan won the Democratic presidential nomination as expected, but then Gen. William T. Sherman took Atlanta and, almost overnight, Lincoln’s moribund campaign took off. In November, he won 55 percent of the popular vote — and only then told his Cabinet of the strange pledge they had signed to “finish up the work we are in.”
As fate — and the people — had decided, it was Lincoln who got to do the finishing up.
The VMI contingent
President and CEO of the
Museum of the Confederacy
In May 1864, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant began his strategy of “attack everywhere,” taking away the ability of Confederate armies to reinforce each other. Gen. Nathaniel Banks advanced into Texas along the Red River, Gen. William T. Sherman headed for Atlanta from Chattanooga and Gen. George Meade crossed the Rapidan River into the Wilderness. Less known was the Union force under Gen. Franz Sigel, which advanced with 9,000 men south through the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Scattered Confederate forces were assembled by Gen. John C. Breckinridge, the former U.S. vice president and runner-up to Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election. But his total force of less than 4,000 men required Breckinridge to also call up the 247 cadets from the Virginia Military Institute as reserves — boys between 14 and 18 years old. Breckinridge told them, “Gentlemen from VMI, I trust I will not need your services today, but if I do, I know you will do your duty.”
The two armies clashed on May 15 at the small hamlet of New Market, Va.; and they made history.
Although outnumbered, Breckinridge decided to take the initiative and attack. The advance stalled and, in the face of tremendous artillery fire, the center of the Confederate line gave way and retreated in confusion. To plug the hole and without other options, Breckinridge gave the reluctant order, “Put the boys in, and may God forgive the order.” With their commandant already wounded, 247 cadets advanced into the fray in the midst of a thunderstorm. Gaining a fence line under a ferocious fire, where veterans would have halted or retreated, the cadets decided to charge. Sweeping through a freshly plowed field where many had their shoes sucked off by the mud, they advanced toward a Union artillery battery, captured it and turned the guns on the retreating Federals. By that time, 57 of the cadets had fallen, with 10 killed outright or dying from their wounds.
These 247 boys had secured their place in history: the only time in American history that a cadet corps was committed to battle and the only time in world history where it emerged victorious. The famous “Spirit of VMI” was born in the “field of lost shoes.” Today, on the anniversary of the battle, the VMI Cadet Corps has a ceremony in front of the graves of the fallen cadets in which each of the 10 names is called out with the response “Died on the field of honor, sir.” The moving rite is not an observance of a political cause or merely a historical event. It is a tribute to those who did their duty, no matter the sacrifice.
Frank J. Williams
President Lincoln under fire
Founding chair of the Lincoln Forum and author of “Lincoln as Hero”
In mid-July 1864, 15,000 Confederate troops under Gen. Jubal Early threatened the nation’s capital. The threat was palpable. It created fear and consternation throughout the entire North.
An array of fortifications surrounded the District, including Fort Stevens on the northern edge of the city. Orders from President Abraham Lincoln and the War Department forced General-in-Chief Ulysses S. Grant to dispatch Gen. Horatio Wright’s 6th Corps to reinforce the government clerks and disabled soldiers defending Fort Stevens.
During the second day of battle on July 12, 1864, the president visited Fort Stevens to observe the fighting. A curious Lincoln climbed up on the parapet. Capt. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would later become an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, allegedly shouted, “Get down, you damn fool,” and the president complied. Others believe it was Gen. Wright who admonished the commander in chief regarding his safety.
Lincoln’s presence in the line of fire was either foolhardy, encouragement for the troops or an act of courage. In the end, Early failed to mount a full-scale attack against the fort or the District. He withdrew. Later that year, Early was decisively defeated by Gen. Phillip Sheridan at the Battle of Fishers Hill and Cedar Creek in the Shenandoah Valley. Those victories were sweet for Lincoln, who once again emerged taller than ever.
This presidential incident raises “what if” questions. What if the president had been killed at Fort Stevens? Fortunately, the president survived. His actions there showed he could both issue and obey commands. It became part of the evolving legend of Lincoln as hero.
A panel of Civil War experts — from academia, the world of letters, archives, museums and assorted other sources — will answer questions posed by The
Washington Post and our readers during the war’s
anniversary. Watch for more questions or suggestions at washingtonpost.com/civilwar.