Here’s a look back at events in the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination conspiracy 150 years ago this week. General Robert E. Lee had a lot on his mind.
Battles: North Carolina operations: The battle of Wyse Fork/Second Kinston continues. At Monroe Crossroads, a surprised US general narrowly escapes capture, allegedly leaving his trousers behind. (27)
Other: General Lee gives Secretary of War Robert Breckinridge his overview of the situation (1, 27), saying (among other things):
The army operating under General Johnston has not yet been concentrated, and its strength is not accurately known. it is believed, however, and be inferior to that of the enemy, nor do I see any prospect, from my present information, of putting them on a footing adequate to the performance of the services that they will probably be called upon to render during the approaching campaign.
While the military situation is not favorable, it is not worse than the superior numbers and resources of the enemy justified us in expecting from the beginning. Indeed, the legitimate military consequences of that superiority have been postponed longer than we had reason to anticipate.
Everything, in my opinion, has depended and still depends upon the disposition and feelings of the people. Their representatives can best decide how they will bear the difficulties and sufferings of their condition and how they will respond to the demands which the public safety requires.
Military events: “[A]t the request of the Army, a small naval force [gets] underway up the river to cut a pontoon bridge the Confederates [a]re reported building below Kinston.” (25, including quote)
Other: General Lee urges CS President Davis to sign the bill allowing slaves to serve in the military, saying:
In the beginning it would be well to do everything to make the enlistment entirely voluntary on the part of the negroes [sic], and those owners who are willing to furnish some of their slaves for the purpose, can do a great deal to inspire them with the right feeling to prepare them to become soldiers, and to be satisfied with their new condition. I have received letters from persons offering to select the most suitable among their slaves, as soon as Congress should give the authority, and think that a considerable number would be forthcoming for the purpose if called for.
Battles: North Carolina operations: Fayetteville. Sherman captures the Confederate Arsenal.
Military events: North Carolina operations: At Fayetteville, Sherman arrang[es] to join Federals under John Schofield at Wilmington, and then advance against Joseph E. Johnston’s Confederates.” (27, including quote) Per source 25:
[March 11-12] Lieutenant Commander George W. Young, senior officer present off Wilmington, led a naval force consisting of U.S.S. Eolus and boat crews from U.S.S. Maratanza, Lenapee, and Nyack up the Cape Fear River to Fayetteville, where the expedition rendezvoused with General Sherman’s army. The naval movement had been undertaken at the request of Major General Terry, who, Young reported, had said on the morning of the 11th “that he was about starting an expedition up the North West Branch [of the Cape Fear River] for the purpose of clearing the way to Fayetteville, and wished to have one of the gunboats, as a support, to follow.” The expedition was halted for the night at Devil’s Bend because of “the circuitous nature of the river”, but resumed the next morning and arrived at Fayetteville on the evening of the 12th. In addition to opening communications between Sherman and the Union forces on the coast the naval units arrived in time to protect the General’s flank while he crossed the river.
Alabama operations: “Lieut. Gen. Richard Taylor abolishe[s] the District of North Alabama. All of the State of Alabama, except that portion in the District of the Gulf, becomes the District of Alabama, Brig. Gen. D.W. Adams, commanding.” (29, including quote)
Military events: North Carolina operations: At Fayetteville, “William T. Sherman’s Federals beg[ins] destroying all buildings and supplies considered useful to the Confederate military at Fayetteville. Confederates under General William Hardee [fight] a delaying action outside town, giving Joseph E. Johnston more time to concentrate his main force between Raleigh and Goldsboro.” (27, including quote)
Alabama operations/Mobile: “U.S.S. Althea, Acting Ensign Frederic A. G. Bacon, was sunk by a torpedo in the Blakely River, Alabama. The small 72-ton tug had performed duties as a coaling and supply vessel since joining the West Gulf Blockading Squadron in August 1864. She was returning from an unsuccessful attempt to drag the river’s channel when she “ran afoul of a torpedo”. Althea went down “immediately” in 10 to 12 feet of water. Two crewmen were killed and three, including Bacon, were injured. Althea had the dubious distinction of being the first of seven vessels to be sunk by torpedoes near Mobile in a five week [sic] period.” (25, including quote)
Other: “President Davis signed the bill into law recruiting blacks as Confederate soldiers. This authorized Davis to recruit up to 300,000 blacks into the Confederate armies, and it was generally understood that any slaves joining the military would be freed after service.” (27, including quote) [Note: The agreement apparently doesn’t specify this, which is why I haven’t listed this under “Emancipation”.] “Some scholars believe that as many as 65,000 African Americans may have served the Confederate Army in some fashion during the war: slaves were impressed or leased to work on fortifications and other projects; some individual slaves accompanied their masters (usually officers) into war as personal servants; and a few (including future Tennessee legislator Sampson W. Keeble) actually fought, generally to protect their own farms or neighborhoods.” (22, including quote)
Today, service of African Americans in the Confederate army isn’t considered a significant issue. I think it’s important because I find difficulties in what to call those “Negro soldiers.” They weren’t Americans, though I have called them that. They weren’t free Confederates like their fellow white soldiers. Yet they weren’t servants, either.
It’s convenient to overlook them because their existence challenges our popular yet oversimplified notion that the war was fought solely to free the slaves. Good – we learn from challenges…which is why most of us (self included) usually run away from them.
Certainly the political ramifications of Lee and Davis’s move were apparent to US President Lincoln, who immediately addressed it in a March 17th speech (which incidentally may have saved him from being kidnapped by John Wilkes Booth, as we will see next week).
Lincoln called the Confederacy’s decision to accept black soldiers “scraping the barrel” and so we call it that today, although this description isn’t very complimentary to black Southerners who, for the first time, were being given uniforms and firearms.
Suppose, after this, Sherman had failed or something else (probably Nathan Bedford Forrest related) had changed things long enough for all of those new Confederate recruits to reach the battlefield and make a difference. Then what would have happened? I’m generally more interested in finding out what did happen, but that’s certainly an interesting and little discussed “what if” scenario.
Virginia operations/Petersburg: Per sources 1 and 6:
CITY POINT, VA., March 14, 1865.
General ROBERT E. LEE, Commanding C. S. Army:
Inclosed I send you copy of statement made by Lieutenant G. W. Fitch, Twelfth U. S. Colored Troops, whose murder was attempted after his capture, and whose companions, who were captured at the same time, were murdered. It is not my desire to retaliate for acts which I must believe are unauthorized by commanders of troops in arms against the authority of the United States, but I would ask to have those barbarous practices prohibited as far as they can be controlled.
Soon after the organization of the first colored troops received into the Army of the United States a little skirmish took place between some of these troops and Confederate forces at Milliken’s Bend, La., in which there were captures on both sides. Information subsequently received, and which I believe reliable, convinced me that all the white officers captured were put to death [Grant also complained to General Johnston about this event, shortly after Milliken’s Bend in 1863]. Although I have no reason for believing this course has been persistently followed toward the officers of colored troops since that time, yet I believe it has been the practice with many officers and men in the Confederate Army to kill all such officers as may fall into their hands.
U. S. GRANT,
Meanwhile, in Richmond, General Lee is secretly telling President Davis:
The army under Genl Johnston is about being united at Raleigh. It is inferior in number to the enemy & I fear its tone is not yet restored [this is the Army of Tennessee, sent into the Carolinas before recovering from its terrible retreat from Tennessee under Hood]. It is in great part without field transportation & labours under other disadvantages. I think it would be better at this time if practicable to avoid a general engagement & endeavour to strike the enemy in detail. This is Genl Johnstons plan, in which I hope he may succeed, & he may then recover all the ground he may be obliged to relinquish in accomplishing it. The greatest calamity that can befall us is the destruction of our armies, If they can be maintained we can recover from our reverses, but if lost we have no resource…I fear it may be necessary to relinquish Raleigh…
However, in North Carolina General Hardee has noticed that Sherman’s left wing is isolated.
Battles: North Carolina operations: The battle of Averasboro/Taylor’s Hole begins.
Military events: “Acting Lieutenant Robert P. Swann, U.S.S. Lodona, reported to Rear Admiral Dahlgren that he had destroyed an extensive salt work on Broro Neck, McIntosh County, Georgia. Destroyed were 12 boilers, 10 buildings, 100 bushels of salt, a large quantity of timber and a number of new barrels and staves.” (25, including quote)
Reconstruction: US President Lincoln has a long interview with a Louisiana delegation about the organization of civil government there. (4)
Lincoln assassination conspiracy: Per source 21, John Wilkes Booth, Lewis Powell (who – under his alias Lewis Paine – has been released from jail after beating a servant), and John Surratt case the presidential box at Ford’s Theater.
Afterwards, Booth gathers his conspirators together at his hotel. It’s the first time Powell, George Atzerodt (sometimes called “Port Tobacco” because that’s where he’s from), David Herold, Samuel Arnold, and Michael O’Laughlen have been together in one room. They play cards and drink until the waiters leave at 1:30 a.m . and then Booth gets down to business.
He says the Lincolns frequently attend plays at Ford’s and he believes the president can be captured there. His plan: Arnold will rush the box and seize Lincoln. Booth and Arnold will handcuff Lincoln and lower him to the stage where Powell will capture him. All with gather around Lincoln and rush out of the building to a waiting carriage where they’ll dash out of the city and meet up with John Surratt and Herold. The other conspirators raise a number of objections and Booth revises the plan frequently to meet them. Arnold reveals that Grant has approved prisoner exchanges. Since release of Confederate prisoners is the reason why they’re kidnapping Lincoln in the first place, Arnold asks Booth why they still going through with it.
“I want a shadow of a chance,” says Arnold. O’Laughlen tries to second that, but Booth cuts him off, saying that Arnold is always finding fault. Arnold replies, “You can be the leader of the party, but not my executioner.” Nonetheless, Booth eventually convinces them to proceed with the kidnapping. Arnold gives an ultimatum that it must be done in the next seven days, and Booth agrees. The meeting breaks up at 5 a.m. (21)
(2) Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson (2003 – see side bar for link).
(3) The Campaigns of Lieut.-Gen. N.B. Forrest, and of Forrest’s Cavalry by Thomas Jordan, J. P. Pryor (1868).
(4) The Lincoln Log timeline.
(6) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.
(8) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).
(11) The Longest Night: A Military History of the Civil War.” (2002) David J. Eicher.
(12) The Pictorial Book of Anecdotes and Incidents of the War of the Rebellion…, Richard Miller Devens (1866).
(14) The Louisiana Native Guards: The Black Military Experience During the Civil War. James G. Hollandsworth, Jr., 1995.
(15) A. Lincoln, A Biography, Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)
(16) The Sword of Lincoln, the Army of the Potomac. Jeffrey Wert (2005)
(17) Black Artillerymen from the Civil War through World War I (PDF), Roger D. Cunningham.
(18) Siege of Petersburg, Wikipedia.
(20) James F. Epperson’s Siege of Petersburg site.
(21) Michael W. Kauffman. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. Random House. New York. 2004. (Note: I use this source heavily for details of the assassination; it is probably the best general-information book on the assassination out there. However, for balance, here is an informed review of its pros and cons, and much, much more.)
(22) Timeline 1865. State of Tennessee
(23) Up From Slavery. Booker T. Washington
(24) Civil war battles in Alabama list.
(25) Naval History of the Civil War. History Central.
(26) Arthur F. Loux. John Wilkes Booth: Day by Day. McFarland & Company. Jefferson, North Carolina. 2014. (Note: I have more confidence in Kauffman’s dates (source 23, above), but will use this to work in the other conspirators and events. Take these dates as general times of the month unless backed up by Kauffman.)
(27) The Legacy of the Civil War: March 1865.
(29) The Final Campaign. Talladega County American History & Genealogy Project
Categories: American Civil War