The American Civil War 150th Anniversary – March 16-22, 1865

Confederate and Union troops in a 2008 reenactment.  (Rennett Stowe)

Confederate and Union troops in a 2008 reenactment. (Rennett Stowe)

Here’s a look back at events in the Civil War and the Lincoln assassination conspiracy 150 years ago this week.

All attention is on events in the eastern theater, but things finally get moving in Alabama and Florida this week, too. US General James Wilson has 12,000-14,000 mounted cavalry ready to move into Alabama. (3,8) CS General Nathan Bedford Forrest is in the Tuscaloosa area, deploying his forces as practicable to protect vital rail lines as well as to meet the Union advance. And in southern Alabama, US General Edward Canby is preparing to move on Mobile with over 30,000 men.

March 16

Battles: North Carolina operations: The battle of Averasboro/Taylor’s Hole ends.

Military events: “Major General Canby requested Rear Admiral Thatcher to provide naval gunfire and transport support to the landing and movement of Federal troops against Mobile. The response again demonstrated the close coordination with ground operations which was so effective throughout the conflict; Thatcher replied: ”I shall be most happy and ready to give you all the assistance in my power. Six tinclads are all the light-draft vessels at my disposal. They will be ready at any moment.

Lincoln assassination conspiracy: George Atzerodt stops at Mary Surratt’s to house see John Surratt (more on Mary and John). Lewis Powell joins them, and all three men go upstairs to see Lou Weichmann. An hour later, Weichmann walks in to find John Surratt and Powell surrounded by Bowie knives, revolvers and four pairs of spurs. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Washington, Booth is with actor John Mathews, possibly resting on the bed Lincoln will later die on. Booth asks him if he will drop off a trunk to somebody in Baltimore (it’s filled with supplies while the president is held). Mathews doesn’t know what it is but he agrees to take the trunk, which Booth is using, as Kauffman (source 21) explains, to frame Sam Arnold. Booth later runs into Arnold and tries to butter him up, but Arnold is still mad after the March 15th conference. (21)

General William Wirt Adams, CSA (Source)

General William Wirt Adams, CSA (Source)

March 17

Military events: Southern Alabama operations/Mobile: “Union troops of the first column were assembled by General Canby at Dauphin Island to the west and to Mobile Point on the east of the entrance to Mobile bay. These forces moved in a 32,000-man column from Fort Gaines by steamboats and over land from Fort Morgan to Fish River in lower Baldwin County; and, on March 17th moved up the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in a joint movement of land and water. A force of light draft iron-clad monitors stood off shore accompanying Canby’s column as it moved northwards towards the head of Mobile Bay.” (30, including quote)

Northern Alabama operations: Expecting Wilson to move soon, General Forrest sends General James Chalmers to Pickersville with 3,200 men. General William Wirt Adams is leading another brigade of some 3,200 Confederate troops is moving to Columbus, Mississippi, from Jackson to guard the Mobile & Ohio Railroad. One additional brigade of 3,200 men is at West-Point. Forrest’s General Abraham Buford therefore has only 6,400 cavalrymen to meet Wilson’s 12,000. (3)

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Lincoln assassination conspiracy: Per Kauffman, source 21, in the afternoon, Booth gathers Sam Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, John Surratt, Powell, Dave Herold, and Atzerodt at the boardinghouse and says that the moment to act has arrived. The president is supposed to be watching a play out at Campbell Hospital, practically on the way to the Soldiers Home, so they can go through with their plan to kidnap him, as Booth promised them on the 15th they would do within seven days. They assemble on the road between Washington and Campbell Hospital, which is outside of town, to catch them a US president.

No one shows up. Lincoln has stayed in Washington to make a public speech addressing the South’s decision to admit black Southerners into the Confederate army.

Kauffman, unlike most historians, thinks Booth wasn’t serious about this attempt and was just trying to force the conspirators to stay in the conspiracy. Kauffman says:

This incident has gone down in history as a failed attempt to kidnap Abraham Lincoln. To Booth, however, it was anything but a failure. Going into that day, some of his people were about to quit the plot…By lying in wait for the president, they had each committed a crime, and arguably an act of treason. And since Booth had deliberately assembled them in a public place, rather than a deserted stretch of road, their ‘kidnap attempt’ had been witnessed by many people…Now each was responsible for anything that resulted from that plot, even if he quit.

I don’t know that Kauffman is correct here. Lincoln’s speech today is in response to a decision the Confederacy made last week on the 13th. Lincoln probably decided to speak at the spur of the moment, soon after he heard the news from Richmond. It’s quite possible that he did cancel plans, at the last minute, to go to Campbell Hospital and Booth didn’t know it.

If so, I can’t help but wonder if this kidnapping attempt, had it worked, would have actually saved Lincoln’s life and extended his presidency to a full second term.

From what I’ve read of them in Kauffman’s book, Booth’s conspirators really believed, at this point, that they were only going to kidnap the president; I don’t think Sam Arnold and Mike O’Laughlen, in particular, would have let Booth shoot the president…and I’m sure Booth knew that, too. And Lincoln would have gone free. Grant would have seen to that, even if it meant letting Sherman hang fire in the Carolinas for a while. I suspect that Lee and Davis would have publicly and privately denounced the kidnappers, too, having already gotten their prisoner exchange agreement and knowing how the kidnapping would negatively affect peace negotiations. (I haven’t bought the “Booth following Confederate orders” idea, any more than Kauffman has…not after following the military events so closely; perhaps it could have been so had this happened a year earlier, soon after the Dahlgren affair, when the South could have profited from it, but not at this present crisis point.)

Unfortunately, it wasn’t in anyone’s fate for things to play out that way in March 1865.

March 18

Military events: Virginia operations/Shenandoah Valley: “Sheridan arrive[s] at White House, Va., after breaking the James River Canal and Virginia Central Railroad.” The following day Grant will order him to return to Petersburg. (6, including quote)

Alabama operations: General Wilson crosses to the south bank of the Tennessee River with three cavalry divisions and some 1,500 dismounted men and establishes a position at Chickasaw Station, on the Memphis & Charleston Railroad. CS General Philip Roddey immediately informs General Forrest. (3) (Note: Other sources date this move to the 22nd of March; I think Jordan & Pryor may be more accurate.) Forrest’s superior, General Richard Taylor, orders Roddey and his men south, to help defend Mobile. (3)

Jefferson Davis circa 1861.  (Library of Congress)

Jefferson Davis circa 1861. (Library of Congress)

Other: “The Confederate Congress adjourned with several important bills left unpassed. President Davis wrote to a friend, ‘Faction has done much to cloud our prospects and impair my power to serve the country.'” (27, including quote)

Lincoln assassination conspiracy: John Surratt, Atzerodt, and Herold meet just beyond Surrattsville. They hide guns and tools from the failed attempt at Surratt’s Tavern. There they meet Atzerodt’s brother – a detective for the Maryland provost marshal who, unfortunately, has no idea that brother George is involved in a conspiracy against Lincoln. (21) Meanwhile, Booth makes the last professional appearance of his life in The Apostate, at Ford’s Theatre.

March 19

Battles: North Carolina operations: The battle of Bentonville begins.

Reconstruction: Lincoln approves General John Pope’s plan of action for Missouri. (4)

March 20

Battles: North Carolina operations: The battle of Bentonville continues.

Frank Leslie's version of Mower's Union troops attacking the Confederate left flank at Bentonville, March 21, 1865.  (Source)

Frank Leslie’s version of Mower’s Union troops attacking the Confederate left flank at Bentonville, March 21, 1865. (Source)

March 21

Battles: North Carolina operations: The battle of Bentonville ends.

Military events: Grant instructs General Pope to get ready to move into Texas. (6) However, it looks like General Lew Wallace is doing most of the heavy lifting regarding peace in the Trans-Mississippi. Perhaps Grant is communicating with Pope since Wallace is on reserve duty because of Shiloh. It’s true that Pope was relieved from command after Second Manassass/Bull Run and moved to Minnesota, but on January 30, 1865, he was assigned to command the Military Division of the Missouri and got a brevet promotion on March 13th. Pope is now back in the game.

Other: Grant calls attention to the fact that black troops haven’t been paid for over six months. (6)

Lincoln assassination conspiracy: Booth takes a train to New York and will watch his much more famous brother Edwin perform on the 22nd. (21) Kauffman notes that both Powell and John Surratt visited New York, and Booth even introduced Surratt to his parents there! Was there a New York chapter to the conspiracy? No one knows.

March 22

Military events: North Carolina operations: Union troops capture Goldsboro almost unopposed. (27)

Northern Alabama operations/Wilson’s Raid. General Wilson sets out from Chickasaw Station (Wyeth, source 8, says he set out from Waterloo) for Selma, where there are government stores as well as an arsenal. (3, 8, 27) “[T]he Union cavalry, 14,500 men (12,500 mounted and 1,500 dismounted men, for a total of 14,000, per Wyeth), under command of Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson, departed Waterloo, on the Tennessee River, moving in the direction of Central Alabama, their mission was to destroy the arsenal and supplies at Selma, and await further orders. Upton’s division moved via Barton’s Station, Russellville, Mt Hope, and Jasper, to Elyton. Long’s division marched by the way of Cherokee Station, Frankford, Russellville, crossed Bear Creek on the Tuscaloosa road, thence by Thorn Hill and Jasper to Elyton. McCook pursued the same route to the crossing of Bear Creek, and thence taking the Tuscaloosa road to Eldridge, then to Jasper and on to Elyton.” (29, including quote)

Per source 3, Wilson has wide discretionary powers from Grant and a pontoon train of 50 wagons, and up to 250 supply wagons. Each mounted cavalryman carries five days’ light rations, 100 rounds of ammo, and an extra pair of horseshoes.

Wyeth, source 8, adds that they are armed with Spencer repeating rifles, “the most formidable weapon known to warfare at that time” – this is not an overstatement. This scene from that excellent movie Gods and Generals (sorry about the ad in this clip!) shows how many soldiers on both sides must fight:


The Spencers, on the other hand, do this…


…and each of Wilson’s men has 100 rounds. US General James Wilson is not fooling around.

General Nathan Bedford Forrest, CSA (left).  General James H. Wilson, USA (right).

Outmanned, outgunned, there is little that Forrest can do to stop Wilson. But he and his men certainly will fight back, and fight hard.

To confuse the Confederates, Upton’s division, the most eastern, moves through Russellville to Saunder’s Ferry on the west fork of the Black Warrior River. The other two head for Tuscaloosa. (3)

Meanwhile, in southern Alabama, “[t]he heavy guns of Union gunboats supported the landing of troops of General Canby’s command at Dannelly’s Mills on the Fish River, Alabama. This was a diversionary operation intended to prevent the movement of additional Confederate troops to Mobile during the week prior to the opening of the Federal attack against that city.” (25, including quote)

Washington, DC: “Assistant Secretary Fox directed Commodore Montgomery, Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard, to have U.S.S. Bat ready to convoy steamer River Queen at noon the next day: ‘The President will be in the River Queen, bound to City Point. Lincoln was headed for a conference with his top commanders. In a hard fought battle (19-22 March), General Sherman had just defeated a slashing attack by General Johnston at Bentonville, mid-way between his two river contacts with the sea at Fayetteville and Goldsboro. At Goldsboro Sherman was joined by General Schofield’s army, which had been brought to Wilmington by ships. Confident of the security of his position, Sherman could leave his soldiers for a few days and take steamer Russia to City Point and the meeting with Lincoln, Grant, and Porter.” (25, including quote)




(1) The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

(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.

(5) Blue and Gray Timeline.

(6) Grant Chronology, Mississippi State University.

(7) Civil War Interactive.

(8) Life of Lieutenant-General Nathan Bedford Forrest, by John A. Wyeth (1908/2011).

(9) This Week in the Civil War.

(10) CWSAC Battle Summaries

(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).

(13) Memoirs of W. T. Sherman

(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.

(19) Petersburg National Battlefield.

(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.

(28) The American Civil War Photo Gallery.

(29) The Final Campaign. Talladega County American History & Genealogy Project

(30) The Mobile Campaign: Battle of Fort Blakely and Spanish Fort. Blakeley State Park.

(31) Wilson’s Raid. Wikipedia.

(32) Wilson’s Raid. Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Categories: American Civil War

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