The Battle of Okolona

February 22, 1864 – Confederate horsemen caught up to withdrawing Federal cavalry and clashed in northern Mississippi.

Gen Nathan Bedford Forrest | Image Credit: Flickr.com

Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s 7,000 Federals continued their withdrawal toward Memphis the day after skirmishing with Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 2,500 Confederates near West Point. Forrest pursued, and near dawn his advance elements attacked Smith’s rear guard in “the prairie,” an open field about four miles south of Okolona. As Confederate reinforcements joined the fray, they charged and drove the Federals through town.

Smith organized a defense line a mile north of Okolona, but another Confederate charge broke it. The Federals fell back another mile and tried making a stand, only to be pushed back again. Smith finally halted his troopers in woods on Ivey’s Farm, about seven miles northwest of Okolona.

The Confederate cavalrymen dismounted and charged the new Federal line, but they were repulsed; Forrest’s brother, Colonel Jeffrey E. Forrest, was killed in the assault. General Forrest had two horses shot out from under him during the fight. The Confederates charged a second time while trying to turn Smith’s right flank, but this failed as well.

Smith then ordered a counterattack, but the numerically inferior Confederates fought it off. They also repulsed a second countercharge, using their sabers when they ran out of ammunition. Smith finally ordered his troopers to continue withdrawing toward Pontotoc. Forrest did not pursue due to exhaustion and lack of ammunition. The 11-mile running skirmish was over.

This was one of Forrest’s greatest victories (despite losing his brother), having beaten an enemy force nearly three times his size. He lost 110 men (25 killed, 75 wounded, and 10 missing) at Okolona and 144 total in the three-day span of February 20-22. The Confederates seized three stands of colors.

Smith lost 388 men (54 killed, 179 wounded, and 155 missing) at Okolona. His troopers nearly faced starvation on their return to Tennessee because they had ravaged the countryside coming into Mississippi. Smith reported that his men had captured 200 Confederates, freed about 3,000 slaves, and burned 2,000 bales of cotton.

However, Smith failed to link with Major General William T. Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee at Meridian, and Sherman had to call off his advance on Selma, Alabama, as a result. For this, Sherman called Smith’s effort “unsatisfactory.” By the end of February, Sherman was back at Vicksburg and Smith was back at Collierville, the starting points of their two-pronged expedition into north and central Mississippi.

The Federal high command next looked to conquer western Louisiana and eastern Texas, and secure that region’s 500,000 cotton bales. Major General Ulysses S. Grant, commanding the Military Division of the Mississippi, directed Sherman to send 10,000 troops to Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s Army of the Gulf, which would be conducting the campaign. Sherman would then meet with Grant to develop plans to capture Atlanta.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 377-79; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 963; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 401-03; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 467-69; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

Advertisements

Northern Mississippi: Smith’s Incursion

February 21, 1864 – Brigadier General William Sooy Smith’s Federal cavalry troopers experienced trouble reaching the main Federal army in Mississippi due to opposition from Major General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s Confederates.

Brig Gen W.S. Smith | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

While the Federal Army of the Tennessee’s march from Vicksburg to Meridian had been a resounding success, Smith’s ancillary cavalry expedition was not. Smith led his 7,000 troopers out of Collierville, Tennessee, on the 11th, 10 days behind schedule and one day after he was supposed to have linked with the Federal army at Meridian. Once Smith and the army joined forces, they were to continue moving east and capture the important factory town of Selma, Alabama.

In the first week of Smith’s incursion into northern Mississippi, his men averaged less than half the projected 25 miles per day, even though they only met minor resistance from Forrest’s Confederate horsemen. Part of Smith’s delay involved tending to the fugitive slaves flocking to his command for protection. The Federals also made frequent stops to destroy farms and railroads. Smith finally reached Okolona, Mississippi, on the 18th.

Major General William T. Sherman, overseeing the destruction of Meridian, stated “that in consequence of hearing nothing from General Sooy Smith he may change somewhat his former plans.” He canceled the planned drive on Selma and ordered his forces to prepare to return to Vicksburg.

Sherman’s Federals began pulling out of Meridian on the 20th. During their 17-day rampage through Mississippi, they sustained just 170 casualties (21 killed, 68 wounded, and 81 missing). The troops slowly moved northwest toward Canton, while Sherman dispatched scouts to try finding Smith’s lost cavalry in northern Mississippi.

During this time, Forrest assembled his 2,500 Confederates at West Point, about 30 miles south of Smith’s Federals at Okolona. Advance elements of both forces began clashing between the two towns on the 19th, as Forrest developed a plan to draw the Federals into West Point and trap them between the narrow stretch of land between Oktibbeha Creek and the Tombigbee River.

Elements of Smith’s force skirmished with part of Forrest’s command at Prairie Station, about 15 miles north of West Point, on the 20th. As the Federals tried pushing south toward the town, more Confederates joined the fray, including a brigade led by Forrest’s brother, Colonel Jeffrey E. Forrest, near Aberdeen. Smith knocked the Confederates back, and his men entered West Point just as General Forrest hoped.

Smith began doubting the wisdom of occupying West Point, especially after receiving word that Major General Stephen D. Lee’s Confederate cavalry was coming to reinforce Forrest. Citing illness, Smith turned command over to the next ranking officer, Brigadier General Benjamin H. Grierson. But when Grierson planned to continue southward, Smith resumed command and ordered his men to withdraw northward the next day. Smith sought to protect his supply train and the growing number of slaves following his troopers.

Colonel Forrest’s men pursued and met up with Smith’s Federals on the morning of the 21st. The Confederates staged a fighting withdrawal, pulling the Federals farther south into the narrow stretch of land where General Forrest hoped to trap them. The Confederates then counterattacked, but the Federals put up a stiff resistance and repulsed two charges.

Sensing that this was a “trap set for me by the rebels,” Smith ordered a withdrawal, despite outnumbering the enemy two-to-one. The Federals formed a rear guard and withdrew across the Oktibbeha. This ensured that Smith’s cavalry would not link with Sherman’s army. General Forrest arrived with the rest of his force and ordered a pursuit that continued into the next day.

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 375-76; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 926-28; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 400-01; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 466-67; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488, 702

The Battle of Olustee

February 20, 1864 – A major confrontation occurred in Florida, as Federal forces tried restoring the state to the Union but ran up against strong Confederate defenses.

Brigadier General Truman Seymour’s 5,500 Federals continued moving west from the state capital of Jacksonville, freeing slaves and destroying anything considered useful to the Confederate war effort along the way. They moved through the pine forests of northern Florida as they sought to destroy the strategically important railroad at Lake City. Seymour’s superior, Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, had urged Seymour not to move so far inland, but Seymour insisted on wrecking the railroad.

The Federals approached Olustee Station, a depot on the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Railroad, about 10 miles east of Lake City and nearly 50 miles southwest of Jacksonville. Brigadier General Joseph Finegan’s 5,000 Confederates set up defenses at Olustee and awaited the Federal approach. Tired of waiting, Finegan directed two brigades under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt to advance.

Colquitt’s troops met advance Federal elements on open ground along the railroad southeast of a lake called Ocean Pond. Colquitt reported, “I threw forward a party of skirmishers, and hastily formed line of battle under a brisk fire from the enemy’s advance.” Colquitt ordered his men forward, which he stated “was gallantly done, the enemy contesting the ground and giving way slowly.”

The Battle of Olustee, or Ocean Pond | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Seymour directed Colonel Joseph R. Hawley’s brigade to capture Colquitt’s guns in the center of the Confederate line, but as they advanced they fell victim to enfilade fire and were forced to fall back. Two regiments fled in panic, and the Confederates captured two guns.

Colonel George P. Harrison’s Confederate brigade came up to link with Colquitt’s forces, and the opposing sides traded fire for several hours. Colquitt called on Finegan to send more reinforcements, but when they did not come, Colquitt ordered a general advance anyway. As the Confederates started pushing the Federals back, Harrison reported:

“But soon a new line of the enemy appeared, and our advance was checked. His resistance now seemed stubborner than before for more than 20 minutes, when the enemy sullenly gave back a little, apparently to seek a better position, but still held us at bay. Now the results of the day seemed doubtful.”

The Confederates began running low on ammunition, with the ordnance wagons a half-mile away. Couriers worked in teams to deliver more ammunition to the troops so they could renew their offensive. Seymour deployed a brigade under Colonel William Barton, but with replenished ammunition, the Confederates held firm.

Finally, Finegan’s reinforcements joined the main line. Harrison wrote, “These re-enforcements served to embolden our men and intimidate the enemy, for their retreat now became more hurried and their fire less rapid and effective.”

Colquitt directed Harrison to send two regiments against the vulnerable Federal right. Harrison reported that this–

“… succeeded admirably, for soon their right was exposed to a cross-fire, which told upon their ranks with fine effect. A general advance of our line now drove the enemy, who retreated, at first sullenly, but now precipitately, before our victorious arms for some miles, when night came on, and by order of General Colquitt we ceased firing and our line halted.”

Finegan sent the rest of his troops forward, and the Federals gradually gave ground before finally retreating. Seymour sustained nearly the highest casualty percentage rate of any Federal commander in the war, losing over 30 percent of his men (203 killed, 1,152 wounded, and 506 missing or captured). Some Federal soldiers who were veterans of the large battles in the Eastern and Western theaters wrote that this was the most vicious battle they ever experienced.

Three black regiments participated in this contest: the 8th U.S., the 35th U.S., and the 54th Massachusetts. The 8th U.S. Colored Troops lost 310 men, 87 of whom were killed. An officer in the regiment recorded that his commander, Colonel Charles W. Fribley–

“… now ordered the regiment to fall back slowly, which we did, firing as we retired, being unable to withstand so disastrous a fire. The order had just reached me on the extreme right when the colonel fell mortally wounded. The command now devolved on Major Burritt, who soon received two wounds and retired from the field, the regiment at this time engaging the enemy with steadiness, and holding the ground for some time near Hamilton’s battery, which we were trying to save. We here lost 3 color-sergeants and 5 of the color guard while attempting to save one gun, but we were driven back, leaving the gun and, as I afterward learned, the color beside it during the excitement.”

According to Seymour, Lieutenant Colonel William Reed of the 35th U.S. Colored Troops was “mortally wounded while managing his regiment with conspicuous skill, and his major was severely hurt.” Seymour praised the black regiments:

“The colored troops behaved creditably, the 54th Massachusetts and the 1st North Carolina (i.e., the 35th U.S.) like veterans. It was not in their conduct that can be found the chief cause of failure, but in the unanticipated yielding of a white regiment from which there was every reason to expect noble service, and at the moment when everything depended upon its firmness.”

Seymour reported that the white troops had failed because of “conscripts and substitutes, of a very inferior class.” Confederates rounded up the wounded Federals stranded on the battlefield; the white troops were generally treated respectfully, but many blacks were killed. Private James Jordan of the 27th Georgia wrote:

“The Yankee prisoners say they had no idea of meeting with such a force here. They said they did not expect to meet nothing but cavalry here. The negroes were badly cut up and killed. Our men killed some of them after they had fell in our hands wounded.”

Finegan sustained 934 losses (93 killed and 841 wounded). Southerners celebrated this rousing victory, with a Georgia newspaper reporting that the Federals were forced to march “40 miles over the most barren land of the South, frightening the salamanders and the gophers, and getting a terrible thrashing…”

Confederate cavalry pursued the Federals ineffectively, repairing the railroad that the Federals had destroyed along the way. Federal forces retained control of the Florida capital of Jacksonville, but other than destroying vast amounts of property, this campaign proved a total failure for them.

Gillmore, who had opposed Seymour’s westward advance in the first place, reported to General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “The enemy have thrown so large a force into Florida that I judge it to be inexpedient to do more at the present time than hold the line of the Saint Johns River.”

Only the weak and timid Confederate cavalry allowed Seymour’s force to return to Jacksonville intact. Nevertheless, this was one of the Confederacy’s most decisive victories of the war, and Florida remained a vital source of cattle, grain, salt, and other staples for the Confederates.

The Federal defeat at Olustee ended President Abraham Lincoln’s hopes of imposing his “Ten Percent Plan” on Florida. His representative/secretary John Hay failed to get the 1,400 voters to pledge loyalty to the Union so they could help form a new Unionist state government. Critics of Lincoln’s plan to reconstruct Florida (as well as Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana) accused him of rushing to install new state governments that would support his upcoming reelection bid.

—–

References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 441; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 375-76; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 10303; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 903-05; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 3: Red River to Appomattox (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 2202-12; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 400-01; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 195; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 466; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 259-60, 545; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q164

Federals Begin Operations in Florida

February 19, 1864 – Federal forces launched an expedition to conquer Florida, while Confederates scrambled to put up a defense.

Major General Quincy A. Gillmore, commanding the Federal Department of the South, had been assigned to invade Florida. Gillmore was to impose President Abraham Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan” by registering 10 percent of the state’s voters so they could elect delegates to form a new Unionist state government. Lincoln had dispatched his secretary, John Hay, to register the 10 percent as Federal troops operated in Florida.

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, granted Gillmore’s request for naval support by providing the screw steamers U.S.S. Ottawa and Norwich to transport troops up the St. John’s River. The gunboats U.S.S. Dai Ching, Mahaska, and Water Witch would also support the army expedition.

Gen Truman Seymour | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Gillmore assigned Brigadier General Truman Seymour, an officer familiar with Florida as a veteran of the Seminole Wars, to lead the division in the field. Seymour had four objectives:

  • Help restore Florida to the Union under Lincoln’s “Ten Percent Plan”
  • Secure the St. John’s River for Federal trade
  • Liberate slaves and recruit them into the Federal army
  • Destroy Confederate supply lines and any materiel–primarily beef and saltworks–considered useful to the Confederate war effort

Gillmore instructed Seymour to land his troops at the state capital of Jacksonville and then move west to Baldwin, “and, if possible, beyond.” Gillmore told him that the Confederates probably had a “small force of infantry and a battery between Jacksonville and Baldwin.” Seymour was to advance no farther than Lake City.

General P.G.T. Beauregard, commanding the Confederate Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, learned that Seymour was preparing an expedition and correctly guessed that his target would be Florida. Beauregard dispatched troops under Brigadier General Alfred H. Colquitt to reinforce Brigadier General Joseph Finegan, who commanded the District of East Florida.

Seymour’s Federals left Hilton Head, South Carolina, aboard 20 transports on the 5th. The force consisted of 5,500 men in three infantry brigades, two cavalry regiments, and four artillery batteries. The transports and gunboats moved up the St. John’s River and landed at Jacksonville two days later. The city had been virtually destroyed by previous Federal occupiers.

The Federals debarked and quickly captured about 100 remaining Confederates. Hay informed them that if they swore allegiance to the Union, they would be freed and allowed to help form the new state government; if they refused, they would be sent to northern prison camps. Hay said, “There is to be neither force nor persuasion used in this matter. You decide for yourselves.”

Hay received the signatures of about half the prisoners, along with several city residents. During his stay at Jacksonville, Hay invested in real estate as part of his plan to become a congressman in the new state government.

Seymour’s Federals also seized eight cannon and a large amount of cotton awaiting blockade runners for shipment. The Norwich trapped the Confederate steamer St. Mary’s on McGirt’s Creek, forcing the Confederates to burn and abandon her. The Federals prepared to head west along the Florida, Atlantic & Gulf Central Railroad, toward Baldwin and the Suwannee River.

Sporadic skirmishing occurred over the next few days, with the Federals arriving at Baldwin on the 10th. To Seymour’s disappointment, the civilians expressed none of the Unionist sentiment that the Federal high command expected. Moreover, Federal cavalry under Colonel Guy V. Henry probed forward and discovered that Confederates were preparing to make a stand at Olustee.

Seymour reported to Gillmore, “I am convinced that a movement upon Lake City is not, in the present condition of transportation, admissible, and indeed that what has been said of the desire of Florida to come back (to the Union) now is a delusion.” Seymour recommended returning his force to Jacksonville, but Gillmore urged him to continue west to Sanderson, halfway to Lake City, and dispatched the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry as reinforcement.

The Federals advanced to Sanderson, where they destroyed vast amounts of public and private property. During this time, Gillmore left Jacksonville and returned to Hilton Head, where he arranged for supplies to be delivered to Seymour’s men. They were now in the unforgiving Florida country of stunted oaks, pines, and palmettos, and their only train had broken down. When Gillmore received word that Confederate cavalry might be threatening Seymour’s right flank, he ordered Seymour to fall back to Baldwin.

Seymour complied, but by the 16th, he was convinced that he could get to Lake City. He informed Gillmore that he intended to head there and destroy the railroad. He asked Gillmore to send him naval support on the Savannah River, adding, “I look upon this as of great importance.”

Stunned, Gillmore replied that there was no way he could arrange such support so quickly. He wrote, “You must have forgotten my last instructions, which were for the present to hold Baldwin…” Gillmore reminded Seymour that he (Seymour) had argued for returning to Jacksonville, but now he inexplicably sought to capture Lake City. He also informed Seymour that the Federal high command had no plans to operate in the Lake City region of Florida, making his proposed advance there pointless.

Meanwhile, Confederates stationed at Lake City observed the Federal movements and relayed them to Finegan. He reported to Beauregard that the enemy numbered at least 10 regiments. Beauregard responded, “Enemy’s forces should on no account be exaggerated. His regiments average 600 at most, composed largely of newly drafted men and recruits; not a match for one-half of our men.”

Finegan scrambled to build a defense line along the railroad near the small hamlet of Olustee, about 10 miles east of Lake City. He ordered his officers “to impress the required negroes and to collect such tools as might be procured from the surrounding plantations.” By the 19th, the Confederate defenses were not yet completed, but Colquitt’s Confederates had arrived to reinforce Finegan. Seymour’s Federals passed Barber’s Plantation and headed for the Confederate line outside Lake City.

—–

References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 366, 371, 373-74; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 900-03; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 394-97; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 462; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 545

The Hunley Attack

February 17, 1864 – One of the first submarine attacks in history occurred when a “submersible” Confederate vessel confronted a Federal warship on blockade duty at Charleston Harbor.

The C.S.S. H.L. Hunley was a forerunner to the modern submarine. It had sunk in two previous test runs, killing both crews, including inventor Horace L. Hunley himself in the second run. Both times the Confederate navy salvaged the Hunley and restored her for service. Built from a boiler cylinder, the hand-cranked, cigar-shaped craft was nicknamed “the peripatetic coffin.”

The H.L. Hunley | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Rear Admiral John A.B. Dahlgren, commanding the Federal South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had received intelligence that Confederates were experimenting with submersible ships to attack the Federal blockaders. He had been aware of “semi-submersible” vessels ever since the David’s attack on the U.S.S. New Ironsides last October, and he knew that new technology was being attempted to make the vessels even harder to see on the water.

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles warned Dahlgren that Confederates were developing a type of “submarine machine.” Dahlgren passed this information to his fleet commanders, instructing them to look out for a ship “of another kind, which is nearly submerged and can be entirely so. It is intended to go under the bottoms of vessels and there operate.”

A Confederate deserter informed the Federals that a vessel had been developed that could “stay underwater 10 minutes each time, and would come up 75 to 80 yards from where she went down.” Dahlgren reported, “When she does not dive, she only shows two heads above the water about the size of a man’s head. He (the deserter) thinks she is about 20 feet long and the manholes are about eight feet apart. She is made of iron.” Dahlgren stated that because he had “every reason to expect a visit from some or all of these torpedoes, the greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them.”

Dahlgren put all his ship captains on high alert, but he assured them that only in “smooth water, and when the tide is slack, that any danger is imminent.” The waters had been rough in Charleston harbor since the beginning of the year, and by the time calm finally came on the night of the 17th, the Federal crews had grown complacent.

Lieutenant George E. Dixon, commanding the Hunley, targeted the U.S.S. Housatonic, a 1,240-ton wooden sloop-of-war. Dixon and his six crewmen waited for a strong ebb tide and favorable winds to help maximize the Hunley’s top speed of four knots. Moving out on a foggy night, guided by a near-full moon, the vessel covered the 12 miles to her target, on blockade duty just outside Charleston Harbor.

At 8:45 p.m., Captain Charles W. Pickering, commanding the Housatonic, sighted a strange object floating in the water toward his ship and notified Acting Master John K. Crosby, the deck officer. Crosby later stated, “It… had the appearance of a plank moving in the water.” The Hunley was already within 100 yards when Crosby saw that it was an enemy vessel. He ordered the crew to slip the anchor cables and back the ship away, but by that time, the Hunley was upon them. None of the Housatonic’s 12 guns could be depressed low enough to fire on the attacker.

The Hunley’s crew detonated a torpedo attached to a spar against the Housatonic’s side. According to Crosby, “The torpedo struck forward of the mizzen mast, on the starboard side, in line with the magazine.” The torpedo held 90 pounds of gunpowder, and the Federal ship sank within five minutes after detonation. Because the water was just 27 feet deep, the Housatonic did not sink completely, allowing all but five of her crew to escape. The remaining 158 crewmen were rescued by the nearby U.S.S. Canandaigua.

The Hunley signaled her success to Confederates on Sullivan’s Island but then disappeared, believed to have been sunk by the blast. There were no survivors, and the craft was finally found in 1970. However, this was the first sinking of a ship by a submarine in history, and it served to put the Federal blockaders on full alert. According to the Charleston Daily Courier:

“The explosion made no noise, and the affair was not known among the fleet until daybreak, when the crew were discovered and released from their uneasy positions in the rigging. They had remained there all night. Two officers and three men were reported missing and were supposed to be drowned. The loss of the Housatonic caused great consternation in the fleet. All the wooden vessels are ordered to keep up steam and to go out to sea every night, not being allowed to anchor inside. The picket boats have been doubled and the force in each boat increased.”

Dahlgren directed his captains to launch patrols and put up netting to guard against similar type vessels. He also wrote Welles proposing a Federal reward of $20,000 to $30,000 for anyone seizing or destroying any vessel like the Hunley. Distressed by this surprise attack, Dahlgren wrote, “They are worth more to us than that.”

—–

References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 139-41; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 730-31; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 898; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 399-400; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 465; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 179; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 363-64; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 371; Ward, Geoffrey, Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 325-26

North Carolina: Confederate Deserters Executed

February 15, 1864 – Thirteen men who deserted the North Carolina militia to join the Federal army were executed by Confederate officials, even though they had never officially belonged to the Confederate army.

Confederate forces withdrawing from New Bern captured several Federal troops near Beach Grove and identified 22 of them as former members of the North Carolina Home Guard. They had served in J.H. Nethercutt’s battalion of the 66th North Carolina, under Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. The men had apparently deserted and joined the Federal cause when rumors swirled that the Home Guard would be drafted into the Confederate army.

Confederate Gen George Pickett | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Major General George Pickett, commanding the Confederate Department of North Carolina, confronted these prisoners and exclaimed, “God damn you, I reckon you will hardly ever go back there again, you damned rascals; I’ll have you shot, and all other damned rascals who desert!” He later told his subordinates, “We’ll have to have a court-martial on these fellows pretty soon, and after some are shot the rest will stop deserting… every God-damned man who didn’t do his duty, or deserted, ought to be shot or hung.”

However, a court-martial had no authority over these men because they had belonged to a state militia unit, not the national army. Nevertheless, two were executed by firing squad before Pickett even approved the creation of a court-martial to try the remaining 20 men. The Fayetteville Observer reported, “Among the prisoners captured by our forces near Newbern were several deserted from our army. We learn by an officer just from the spot that two of these have already been executed, and others are undergoing trial.”

The tribunal consisted of Pickett’s officers, headed by Hoke. According to one of the defendant’s brothers, “the court-martial refused to admit an attorney, or to receive any evidence in favor of the accused.” Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, received a list of 53 Federal prisoners who had once belonged to the North Carolina militia. He forwarded this list to Pickett and wrote, “I ask for them the same treatment, in all respects, as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.”

Before Pickett responded, seven men were found guilty and hanged less than 24 hours after the verdict. On the 14th, the remaining 13 men were found guilty and sentenced to death the next day. According to Reverend John Parris, chaplain of the 54th North Carolina:

“The scene beggars all description. Some of them were comparatively young men; but they had made a fatal mistake; they had only 24 hours to live, and but little preparation had been made for death. Here was a wife to say farewell to a husband forever. Here a mother to take the last look at her ruined son; and then a sister who had come to embrace, for the last time, the brother who had brought disgrace upon the very name she bore, by his treason to his country. I told them they had sinned against their country, and that country would not forgive; but they had also sinned against God, yet God would forgive if they approached Him with penitent hearts filled with a godly sorrow for sin, and repose their trust in the atoning blood of Christ.”

Nethercutt urged Hoke to intervene on the condemned men’s behalf, but Hoke told him (according to Nethercutt) that “he could do nothing, as he had an order for their execution.” Parris wrote:

“The 13 marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear not. On the scaffold they were arranged in one row. At a given signal the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling; but it was as truly the deserters’ doom. Many of them said ‘I never expected to come to such an end as this.’ But yet they were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom.”

Pickett replied to Peck’s letter the day after the executions. He told Peck that he had only executed 22 of the 53 men on the list, but because the list had been “so kindly furnished me,” it would help Pickett “bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts.” Pickett wrote, “Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors.”

Before Peck received Pickett’s reply, he was shown the article in the Fayetteville Observer stating that two men had been executed and the rest were awaiting trial. Peck wrote, “Having reported this matter to higher authority, I am instructed to notify you, that if the members of the North Carolina regiment who have been captured are not treated as prisoners of war, the strictest retaliation will be enforced.”

Peck warned Pickett that the Federals held “two colonels, two lieutenant colonels, two majors, and two captains” at Fort Monroe on the Virginia Peninsula “as hostages for their safety.” Peck received information from various sources, some accurate and some not, and he tried sorting it out with his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, before learning the truth in March.

After the war, Nethercutt testified before a Federal war crimes commission regarding those executed: “As far as I can recollect, these men were never borne on the rolls and returns of the (66th North Carolina) regiment.” In response to the question why these men deserted before their unit was absorbed into the Confederate army, Nethercutt said that he did not believe “their sympathies were with the rebellion.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Fall of Meridian

February 14, 1864 – Major General William T. Sherman’s Federal Army of the Tennessee completed its destructive march through central Mississippi by arriving at the last Confederate-controlled railroad center in the state.

Maj Gen W.T. Sherman | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

As the Federals resumed their eastward march on the 14th, Sherman issued orders to his commanders on what their men should do once they reached Meridian:

“The destruction of the railroads intersecting at Meridian is of great importance, and should be done most effectually. Every tie and rail of iron for many miles in each direction should be absolutely destroyed or injured, and every bridge and culvert completely destroyed… The troops should be impressed with the importance of this work, and also that time is material, and therefore it should be begun at once and prosecuted with all the energy possible. The destruction of the buildings must be deferred until the last moment, when a special detail will be made for that purpose.”

Lieutenant General Leonidas Polk, commanding the Confederate Army of Mississippi, had ordered his troops to abandon Meridian, but before they left, they dumped felled trees on the roads to slow the Federal advance. They also destroyed the bridges over Tallahatta Creek and the Oktibbeha River. Federal engineers and laborers rebuilt the bridge over the Tallahatta that morning. Then, as Sherman reported:

“At the Tallahatta, 20 miles from Meridian, we found the road obstructed with fallen timber, and satisfied the enemy was trying to save time to cover the removal of railroad property from Meridian, I dropped our trains with good escorts and pushed on over all obstructions straight for the Oktibbeha, where we found the bridge burning.”

Colonel Edward Winslow’s Federal cavalry led the advance across the Oktibbeha, where they pushed the small Confederate rear guard through Meridian. A Federal infantry division led by Brigadier General Andrew J. Smith came up, with Winslow and Smith arguing over whether the cavalry or the infantry should be the first to enter the town. Winslow won, telling Smith, “I believe this cavalry would charge the Gates of Hell if I tell them,” and leading his troopers into Meridian. Smith’s infantry followed, as a soldier named John Ritland recalled:

“Again we marched on with the firm resolution in our hearts to do or die; and again we were halted, this time to receive orders not to fire a shot, meanwhile, continuing our interminable marching, as if there was no end. Almost unaware we found ourselves marching through a deserted town with here and there some negroes reported, but not a sign of the enemy. Upon asking where they might be, the negroes reported, ‘They’re all gone. They began going yesterday. Some went last night, and the rest this morning.’ They had divided and their destinations were Mobile and Richmond. We occupied the city without a shot.”

Sherman entered the town that night. The next morning, he issued a proclamation to his troops, congratulating them for–

“… their most successful accomplishment of one of the great problems of the war. Meridian, the great railway center of the Southwest, is now in our possession, and by industry and hard work can be rendered useless to the enemy and deprive him of the chief source of supply to his armies. Secrecy in plan and rapidity of execution accomplish the best results in war, and the general commanding assures all, by following their leaders fearlessly and with confidence, they will in time reap the reward so dear to us all–a peace that will never again be disturbed in our country by a discontented minority.”

The Confederates fell back to the east side of the Tombigbee River. Polk’s ultimate destination was Demopolis, Alabama, while he moved about $12 million worth of supplies to Selma and Mobile. His cavalry, led by Major General Stephen D. Lee, did its best to harass Sherman’s Federals but could do little in the face of such overwhelming numbers.

The next day, the Federals began destroying the town in earnest, wrecking railroad tracks, locomotives, factories, sawmills, machine shops, public buildings, and private homes, while the Confederates were powerless to save the civilians from such devastation. Sherman reported on the 20th: “For five days 10,000 men worked hard and with a will in that work of destruction… Meridian, with its depots, store-houses, arsenals, hospitals, offices, hotels and cantonments no longer exists.”

In the 11-day, 140-mile campaign from Vicksburg to Meridian, the Federals obliterated 115 miles of railroad track, 61 bridges, and 20 locomotives in pursuit of Sherman’s goal to ensure that the Mississippi railroads could not function for the rest of the war.

Sherman informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck that his troops had taken “some 500 prisoners, a good many refugee families, and about 10 miles of negroes,” while inflicting so much damage that it was “simply impossible for the enemy to risk anything but light cavalry this side of Pearl River…” He also wrote:

“My movement to Meridian stampeded all Alabama. Polk retreated across Tombigbee and left me to smash things at pleasure, and I think it is well done… We broke absolutely and effectually a full hundred miles of railroad… and made a swath of desolation 50 miles broad across the State of Mississippi which the present generation will not forget.”

—–

References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 374; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 925-26, 934; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 397-98; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 464; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 488