The American Civil War 150th Anniversary: 1861, the year in review

Here is the review of some easily discoverable Civil War events during 1861, with tables of the political and military news 150 years ago today, as well as of the battles that happened then. Since I got started late in the year on this, the review will also serve as a catch-up to some of the many important events of the year.

“The heather is on fire”

My overarching realization now is that Americans then were by no means complacent about what was happening. I had thought things started slowly in 1861 because people were unwilling to let go the old way of life.

While there were last-ditch political efforts to once again head off secession with more compromise, it’s actually pretty amazing how quickly the fighting broke out in so many areas that first year.

Nobody seems to have realized a new order would come in as a result of their actions. They just wanted to prevail. At the time, everybody was confident of their ability to whup the “rebels/bluebellies” and eager to get started.

James McPherson quotes a Harvard professor who had been born during the George Washington era as saying, “The heather is on fire.  I never knew what a popular excitement can be.”

Perhaps that’s a large reason of why this first year of the Civil War 150th anniversary has been so low key among the general public:  lasting burnout, even after all these years, and a hesitancy (especially after the 1960s) to get into any sort of a large “popular excitement” again.

Indeed, after looking more closely into the Civil War, that type of viewpoint is difficult to argue with.  However, one still has to first look closely, and there is no better time to do that than now.

1860 in review

John Brown in 1856.

John Brown, three years before Harpers Ferry (Source: )

To those of you who might be planning to blog the 200th anniversary of the War Between the States:  Start in 1860.  It was a very eventful year, and in December 1860, the first secession happened.  For this post, I will try to sum up 1860 briefly, using information from Battle Cry of Freedom.

The year opened with the nation still abuzz over John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry the previous October. Brown and four of his six raiders had been executed in December 1859 (Brown is actually buried a few hours’ drive north of here, near Lake Placid, New York), and the remaining two were taken to the gallows in March 1860.

It sounds like Brown was as crazy as he looked, and the raid was a poorly planned disaster from start to finish, but the man’s behavior as a martyr at his trial won the admiration of many influential people in the North. Southerners were first shocked at the attack, which was made in an effort to stir up a slave rebellion; later, they were incensed that so many in the north admired the perpetrator.

In this election, both Democrats and Republicans (a brand new party back then) used the raid and its political fallout to try to build up their own popularity and tear down that of their opposition. It was a complex matter, given the underlying passions over the institution of slavery.

The Democrats held their national convention in Charleston, South Carolina, in April 1860. Cotton-state organizations threatened trouble if the convention didn’t include a platform plank supporting a federal slave code for the territories out West. After a bitter fight, the plank was not adopted, and fifty Lower South delegates walked out. After that, the remaining Democrats tried 57 times to nominate a candidate for president but failed to find a majority for anyone. They adjourned for six weeks and then met again in Baltimore, Maryland, where some of “the bolters” were readmitted, only to have them leave again, and this time take most Upper South delegates with them, when a slave-code platform wasn’t adopted.

The convention then nominated Stephen Douglas for president, while “the bolters” nominated US Vice President John C. Breckinridge on a slave-code platform. A third group – the Constitutional Union Party – that wanted to avoid a national split over slavery, nominated Tennessee politician John Bell for president and former Massachusetts governor Edward Everett for vice president.

Map of results of the 1860 presidential election.

The results of the 1860 election (source: )

The Republican convention opened in Chicago on May 16th. Despite the availability of several other worthy and ambitious candidates, McPherson notes that “[p]arty leaders gradually recognized that the Illinoisian [Lincoln] had most of the strengths and few of the weaknesses of an ideal candidate,” and Lincoln did win the nomination on the third ballot, with the split among the Democrats practically guaranteeing him the presidency.

It was a strange national campaign for both parties. Republicans didn’t even have a ticket in 10 Southern states, where the party was so unpopular any candidate who showed up would have been driven out of town and possibly even physically attacked. In the remaining five slave states, Lincoln only got 4 percent of the popular vote, while Breckinridge only got about 5 percent of the popular vote up North, and Bell less than 3% of the Northern vote.

Overall, Lincoln didn’t get even half of the national popular vote but he easily won the election through the electoral college. Southerners noted his 60% share of the Northern vote with concern, just as Northerners in 1857 had fretted that the Dred Scott decision laid the groundwork for legalizing slavery throughout the whole country (McPherson thinks this was a possibility, though, not too likely). Each region of the country feared that the other would dominate them.

According to McPherson, the New Orleans Delta editorialized after the election that “It [the Republican party] is, in fact, essentially a revolutionary party”; in Illinois, he notes, a political activist wrote, “We live in revolutionary times & I say God bless the revolution.”

Twenty-seven days after the election, the counter-revolution began.

A South Carolina convention called by the state legislature voted unanimously for an Ordinance of Secession. Other Southern states would follow them, after the Christmas holidays, once 1861 arrived.

A note on sources

In the tables below, the following sources are indicated by numbers:

(1)  The timeline.

(2)  The Library of Congress timeline.

(3)  The Smithsonian timeline.

(4)  Battle Cry of Freedom.

Numbers after those refer to individual references listed at the end of this post as footnotes.

Lincoln's inauguration, 1861

Lincoln's inauguration, 1861 (Source: )

Politics in 1861

Month Event
January January 9-26: The slave states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana  secede.

January 29:  Kansas admitted as a free state. (3)

February February 1:  Texas  secedes.

February 4:  Representatives of the seven states that have thus far seceded convene in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a new republic.  (5)

February 8-27:  A “peace conference”is convened in Washington by the Virginia state legislature. This “Old Gentleman’s Convention” is boycotted by the seceded states plus Arkansas; free states Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota refuse to send representatives; and California and Oregon don’t attend, citing the distance.  Nothing much is accomplished.  (4)

February 8:  Announcement of the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America, with the convention in Montgomery as its Congress.

February 18:  Jefferson Davis is inaugurated as the first president of the CSA.

March March 4:  Abraham Lincoln is inaugurated  as the 16th president of the USA.

March 11:  The Permanent Confederate Constitution is adopted.  (Background.)

April (See military events from April 12-17 for Fort Sumter and the USA and CSA responses.)

April 17:  Virginia  secedes.

April 29:  President Davis announces the ratification of the Confederate Constitution.

May May 6:  Arkansas  secedes.

May 13-15:  First Wheeling Conventionstarts western Virginia on the path to rejoining the Union as the new state of West Virginia.

May 20:  North Carolina secedes.

May 29:  The capital of the Confederacy moves from Montgomery, Alabama, to Richmond, Virginia (where today Jefferson Davis’s former residence is now the Museum of the Confederacy). (3)

June June 8:  Tennessee  secedes.

June 13:  Unionists win all 6 seats in a special election in Maryland.  With four Union regiments also raised in the state, secessionists from Maryland have to go into CSA states in order to raise troops. (4)

June 13-14:  The Second Wheeling Convention issues “A Declaration of the People of Virginia” and “An Ordinance for the Reorganization of the State Government.”

October October 31:  Missouri secedes.
November November 20:  Kentucky  secedes.

November 26:  A constitutional convention for what will become the new state of West Virginia convenes.

Fort Sumter after the bombardment, 1861

Fort Sumter's southwest exterior wall after the bombardment, 1861. (Source: )

Significant military news in 1861

Month Event
January January 9:  The Star of the West, a merchant vessel secretly carrying federal troops and supplies to Fort Sumter, is fired upon by South Carolinian artillery at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. (3)
March  March 6:  The Confederate Congress authorizes a volunteer army of 100,000 men for 12 months.  (4)
April April 12:  At 4:30 a.m., South Carolina’s artillery opens fire on Fort Sumter. (4)

April 14:  The CSA flag is raised over Fort Sumter.  (4)

April 15:  President Lincoln issues Proclamation 80, calling for 75,000 volunteers and convening an extra session of Congress.

April 17:  President Davis issues a proclamation encouraging national resistance and offering letters of marque for “private armed vessels on the high seas” that will help the CSA repel invaders.  About 20 privateers respond, capturing two dozen Northern ships as prizes by July. (4)

April 19:  President Lincoln orders a naval blockade of all CSA ports (3)  Refusing to accept the legitimacy of the CSA government, and thus identifying the privateers as merely pirates, he also redirects some ships away from the blockade and sends them hunting for privateers, capturing several crews.  Lincoln issues a proclamation threatening to hang these ‘pirates.’ In response to Lincoln’s threat on the privateers, President Davis promises to execute a US prisoner of war for every privateer hung.  The facedown continues to the point where Davis has lots drawn for Union prisoners, but Lincoln backs down, recognizing that his legal position is untenable, as the naval blockade (which is reducing the effectiveness of the privateers) is a wartime action.  (4)

April 19:  While passing through Baltimore, Maryland, the 6th Massachusetts Regiment (the first fully equipped unit to respond to Lincoln’s call-up) clashes with city mobs, leaving 4 soldiers and 12 civilians dead.  The mayor and chief of police, with the governor’s approval, destroy bridges to prevent more northern units from moving in.  When telegraph lines are severed by Maryland partisans, the USA capital is isolated from the rest of the north. (4)

April 20:  Col. Robert E. Lee resigns his commission in the United States Army. (3)

April 23:  Major General Robert E. Lee takes command of Virginia’s military and naval forces.

April 25:  Several Northeast military units under USA Gen. Benjamin Butler reach Washington after traveling through Annapolis and repairing sabotaged railroad lines.  USA troops begin buildup along railroads in the area to keep them open.  (4)

April 27:  In response to the events in Baltimore, Lincoln orders a suspension of the writ of habeus corpus.  (More information.)

April 27:  Col. Thomas Jackson, CSA, takes command at Harpers Ferry and starts building what will become famous as the “Stonewall Brigade.” (6)

May May 13:  Martial law is declared in Baltimore.  This as well as the military build-up dampen secessionist activities.  (See politics, above.) (4)

May 14:  Robert E. Lee becomes a brigadier generalin the CSA army when Virginia’s forces join Confederate service.

May 24:  US troops cross the Potomac and capture Alexandria, Virginia, and environs, turning Robert E. Lee’s estate on Arlington Heights into a Federal command post (it ultimately becomes the national cemetery).

June  June 20:  The C.S.S. Sumter, one of the new commerce raiders that are replacing privateering on the open seas, successfully runs the blockade south of New Orleans.
September September 3:  General Leonidas Polk, CSA, violates the neutrality of Kentucky in order to seize the strategic position on the bluffs of Ohio.  The event triggers political confrontation between unionist and secessionist factions, ultimately leading to Kentucky’s session in November (see politics, above).  In response to Polk’s move, the federal commander at Cairo, Illinois, General U. S. Grant, sends a garrison to Paducah.  (4)  The two sides will clash at Belmont, Missouri, in November (see battles, below).
October October 21:  The Confederacy organizes the Department of Northern Virginia, under General Joseph Johnson.  Its command structure is the Army of Northern Virginia.

October 22:  General Thomas Jackson is placed in command of the (Shenandoah) Valley District of the Army of Northern Virginia. (6)

November November 8:  US vessels intercept the neutral British steamer Trent and seize two of its passengers, the Confederate commissioners to Britain and France. (3)  This brings Great Britain to the brink of war with the US, until Secretary of State Seward backs down and releases the two Confederate men in December.
December Many troops on both sides are in winter quarters.

December 27:  General William Loring, CSA, after a delay that exasperates General Jackson, arrives at Winchester, bringing Jackson’s forces for the planned 1862 Shenandoah campaign up to 11,000 men.

Unidentified USA and CSA soldiers

Unidentified USA and CSA soldiers (Source: Library of Congress Flickr photostream)

Some of the battles of 1861

Month Event Win/Loss
April April 12-13:  Bombardment of Fort Sumter. (3) Brig. Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, CSA/Maj. Robert Anderson, USA
May 1. May 18-19:  Sewell’s Point(Virginia, blockade of Hampton Roads).

2. May 29-June 1:  Aquia Creek (Virginia, blockade of Chesapeake Bay)

1. Inconclusive.

2. Inconclusive.

Jun 1. June to September:  The West Virginia campaign.

2. June 10:  Bethel Church(Virginia).

3. June 17:  Boonville (Missouri)

1. Gen. George McClellan, USA/Gen. Robert E. Lee, CSA

2. Col. J. B. Magruder and Col. D. H. Hill, CSA/Gen. Ebenezer Pierce, USA

3. Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, USA/Col. John S. Marmaduke, CSA


July 1. July 2:  Hoke’s Run, Falling Waters, Hainesville(Western Virginia)

2. July 5:  Carthage(Missouri)

3. July 16-July 25th:  Timeline of the first battle of Bull Run/Manassas.

1. Gen. Robert Patterson, USA/Gen. Thomas Jackson, CSA

2. Governor (yes)Claiborne Jackson, CSA/Col. Franz Sigel, USA

3. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston and Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard, CSA/ Gen. Irvin McDowell, USA

August 1. August 10:  Wilson’s Creek, Oak Hills(Missouri)

2. August 28-29:  Hatteras Inlet Batteries, Fort Clark, Fort Hatteras (North Carolina)

1. Gen. Sterling Price, Missouri State Guard, and Gen. Ben McCulloch, CSA/Gen. Nathaniel Lyon and Gen. Samuel Sturgis, USA

2. Gen. Benjamin Butler, USA/Col. William Martin, CSA

September 1. September 2:  Dry Wood Creek, Battle of the Mules(Missouri).

2. September 13-20:  Lexington, Battle of the Hemp Bales(Missouri).

3. September 17:  Liberty, Blue Mills (Missouri).

4. September 19:  Barbourville (Kentucky).

1. Gen. Sterling Price and Gen. James Rains, CSA/Col. J.H. Lane, USA

2. Gen. Sterling Price, CSA/Col. James Mulligan, USA

3. D.R. Atchison, CSA/Col. John Scott, USA

4. Col. Joel Battle, CSA/Capt. Isaac Black, USA

October 1. October 9:  Santa Rosa Island(Florida, blockade of Gulf).

2. October 21:  Camp Wildcat, Wildcat Mountain(Kentucky).

3. October 21:  Fredericktown (Missouri).

4. October 21:  Ball’s Bluff, Harrison’s Landing, Leesburg (Virginia).

5. October 25:  Springfield, Zagonyi’s Charge (Missouri).

1. Col. Harvey Brown, USA/Gen. Richard Anderson, CSA

2. Gen. Albin Schoepf, USA/Gen. Felix Zollicoffer, CSA

3. Col. J.B. Plummer and Col. William Carlin, USA/Gen. M. Jeff Thompson, CSA

4. Gen. Nathan Evans, CSA/Gen. Charles Stone and Col. Edward Baker, USA

5. Major James Zagonyi, USA/Col. James Frazier, CSA

November 1. November 7:  Belmont(Missouri) between USA forces led by Gen. Grant and CSA forces led by Gen. Gideon Pillow (Gen. Polk’s subordinate).

2. November 7:  Port Royal(South Carolina).

3. November 8-9:  Ivy Mountain, Ivy Creek, Ivy Narrows (Kentucky).

4. November 19:  Round Mountain (Indian Territory [Oklahoma]).

1. Inconclusive

2. Flag Officer Samuel DuPont and Gen. Thomas Sherman, USA/Gen. Thomas Drayton and Captain Josiah Tattnall, CSA

3. Possibly inconclusive, but counted as Union victory under Gen. William Nelson and Col. Joshua Sill/CSA troops under Col. John Williams withdrew

4. Col. Douglas Cooper, CSA/Chief Opothleyahola (Unionist band of Creeks and Seminoles)


December 1. December 9:  Chusto-Talasah, Caving Banks(Indian Territory [Oklahoma]).

2. December 17:  Rowlett’s Station, Woodsonville, Green River(Kentucky).

3. December 20:  Dranesville (Virginia).

4. December 26:  Chustenahlah (Indian Territory [Oklahoma]).

5. December 28: Mount Zion Church (Missouri).

1. Col. Douglas Cooper, CSA/Chief Opothleyahola (Unionist band of Creeks and Seminoles)

2. Inconclusive, though troops under Col. August Willich, USA, occupied area and maintained control of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad

3. Gen. E.O.C. Ord, USA/Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, CSA

4. Col. James McIntosh, CSA/Chief Opothleyahola (Unionist band of Creeks and Seminoles

5. Gen. Benjamin Prentiss, USA/Col. Caleb Dorsey, CSA

All that happened 150 years ago this year.  Wow!

A 2012 note

Battles will increase in frequency during coming years, so for 2012 I will try to post a review like the above each Monday, but only for the events of those dates in the coming week.  At the end of each month, I’ll do a separate review post.

Of course, this will be in addition to ongoing and unscheduled essays from time to time on my attempts to find traces of the Civil War today in my surroundings. As mentioned already, I am in the north right now and those posts will of necessity have to do mostly with northern affairs. At some point over the next 3 years, I hope to head back South, and my focus will shift.

Happy New Year!


(5)  “Overview of the Confederacy” at  (Accessed December 25, 2011).

(6) “1861-1863,” Virginia Military Institute’s Stonewall Jackson Biographical  Summary website at (Accessed December 26, 2011).

Categories: American Civil War

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