The Siege of Suffolk

April 11, 1863 – Confederate forces under Lieutenant General James Longstreet attacked the Federal garrison at Suffolk, Virginia, south of the James River.

Confederate Major General James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Longstreet had been assigned to command a new department consisting of part of his First Corps pulled from General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet’s mission was to guard the region south of Richmond into North Carolina, gather foodstuffs for Lee’s army since war-torn northern Virginia lacked sufficient forage, and eliminate the Federal threat at Suffolk.

Longstreet’s force included 20,000 men in two divisions led by Major Generals George Pickett and John Bell Hood. Since the main objective was to supply Lee, Longstreet merely planned to demonstrate against Suffolk to distract the Federals from his main purpose. A division of IX Corps consisting of about 25,000 Federals under Major General John J. Peck garrisoned Suffolk, which was part of Major General John A. Dix’s Federal military department. Suffolk was heavily fortified.

Confederates and Federals traded shots from across the Nansemond River, as Longstreet extended his right flank southward to Dismal Swamp. Fighting intensified over the next few days as Acting Rear Admiral Samuel P. Lee, commanding the Federal North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, dispatched a fleet of gunboats under Lieutenant William B. Cushing to support Peck. Lee informed Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “If Suffolk falls, Norfolk follows.”

The gunboats U.S.S. Mount Washington, Stepping Stones, and Commodore Barney came up the crooked, narrow Nansemond and traded fire with the Confederate guns near the Norfleet house, at the confluence of a western branch of the Nansemond and the main river. The vessels were converted ferryboats and tugs, and were not meant for such heavy combat. The Confederates inflicted heavy losses as a result, including grounding the Mount Washington until the Stepping Stones rescued her.

However, the gunboats responded with accurate fire of their own, joined by Federal land batteries and troops behind their fortifications. The artillery duel continued the next day, when the Federal gunboats and artillerists silenced several Confederate batteries at the Norfleet house and along the Nansemond. The duel ended and a standoff began, as Longstreet initiated a siege of Suffolk.

Silencing the Confederate batteries opened a path up the Nansemond to the Confederate garrison at Fort Huger on Hill’s Point. Longstreet directed Major General Samuel G. French to station five cannon and three infantry companies in the empty fort to oppose the approaching Federal gunboats.

On the morning of the 19th, the Stepping Stones suddenly appeared about 400 yards from the fort, commanded by Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson. The ship’s guns sent the defenders running for cover, and then 270 soldiers of the 8th Connecticut and the 89th New York landed, along with four boat howitzers. The Federals charged into the fort before the Confederates could react, capturing 137 men and all five guns, some of which had been taken from Harpers Ferry last September.

The Federals initially strengthened the fort but then evacuated two days later, allowing the Confederates to take it back. However, the fort no longer posed a threat to the Federal ships on the Nansemond. Longstreet called the defeat at Fort Huger “a serious disaster. The enemy succeeded in making a complete surprise.”

Two aides under Colonel Evander M. Law accused men of the 55th North Carolina, assigned to defend the fort, of cowardice. Colonel John K. Connally, the regiment’s commander, furiously denied the charge, and a double duel took place to clear the men’s name. Shots were fired, but nobody was hurt.

These minor operations kept the Federals occupied while Longstreet achieved two of his main objectives–protecting Richmond and foraging for the Army of Northern Virginia. Peck also achieved his main goal, which was to prevent the Confederates from capturing Suffolk. Longstreet continued his tentative siege on the town while his men continued foraging in the surrounding countryside.

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References

Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 274; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 256-58; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 279-82; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 337; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 638-39; 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. 197; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 275, 534

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Hardships on the Confederate Home Front

April 10, 1863 – Southerners endured greater hardships than ever before this year, especially west of the Mississippi River. This led to growing unrest and widespread discontent.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

President Jefferson Davis responded to a letter written by Arkansas Governor Harris Flanagin in January about the importance of the Mississippi River to both his state and the Confederacy. Flanagin also asked Davis to send him more troops from Arkansas and Missouri who were currently serving in other theaters.

Davis wrote, “The defense of the Mississippi River on both banks has been considered by me as of primary importance, and I can assure you that you cannot estimate more highly than I do the necessity of maintaining an unobstructed communication between the States that are separated by the river.”

Referring to Vicksburg and Port Hudson as indispensable, Davis stated:

“If we succeed, as I have confidence we shall, in maintaining these two positions, we preserve the ability to furnish the munitions and ordnance stores necessary for the supply of the troops on the west bank, and to throw across the river adequate forces for meeting the enemy, if he should transfer his campaign from Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama to Arkansas and Louisiana.”

Regarding more troops, Davis wrote that “we are sadly outnumbered on all our lines of defense… (though) it will be found that the disproportion between the opposing forces has been more largely against us on the eastern than on the western side. Yet, if we lose control of the eastern side the western must almost inevitably fall into the power of the enemy. The defense of the fortified places on the eastern bank is therefore regarded as the defense of Arkansas.”

As Davis explained:

“Our safety, our very existence, depends on the complete blending of the military strength of all the States into one united body that is to be used anywhere, everywhere, as the exigencies of the contest may require for the good of the whole. The discipline and efficiency of our armies have been found to be far greater when the troops were separated from their homes, and thus delivered from the constant temptation to absent themselves from duty presented by proximity to their families.”

Davis pledged to do his best “to protect your State to the utmost extent of our ability,” and he hoped that the recent appointment of Lieutenant General Edmund Kirby Smith to head the Trans-Mississippi Department would have a “good effect in satisfying the good people of your State, and supplies of arms and munitions will be constantly forwarded as rapidly as our resources and means of transportation will permit.”

Shortages of nearly every necessity began plaguing the Confederacy to the point of causing civil unrest. As a result of the Richmond “bread riot” and other similar incidents, South Carolina Governor Milledge L. Bonham asked legislators to enact measures halting the growing speculation and hoarding of flour, corn, bacon, and other goods.

A North Carolina woman wrote to Governor Zebulon Vance expressing the hardships that she and many other women and children endured on farms. She stated that “a crowd of we Poor wemen went to Greenesborough yesterday for something to eat as we had not a mouthful of meet nor bread in my house what did they do but put us in gail in plase of giveing us aney thing to eat… I have 6 little children and my husband in the armey and what am I to do?”

Several women wrote to Confederate officials begging for them to discharge their husbands from the military. One wife assured the secretary of war that her husband “is not able to do your government much good and he might do his children some good and thare is no use in keeping a man thare to kill him and leave widows and poore little orphen children to suffer while the rich has aplenty to work for them.”

The military draft was also becoming increasingly unpopular and unmanageable. Lieutenant General D.H. Hill, commanding Confederates in North Carolina, wrote a letter to the War Department explaining that enforcement of the draft law in North Carolina was inefficient and corrupt. Confederate officials reported that in Virginia, the Confederate state with the highest population, the draft was netting just 700 recruits per month.

The Confederate Congress recognized the growing unrest as well as the fact that the war would not be won anytime soon. Members approved a resolution declaring that although “a strong impression prevails throughout the country that the war… may terminate during the present year,” the people should instead “look to prolonged war as the only condition proferred by the enemy short of subjugation.”

This contrasted with Davis’s January message to Congress (after the victories at Fredericksburg and Chickasaw Bayou, and before the consequences of the Battle of Stones River had come to light), in which he predicted total victory would come soon. As such, he felt compelled to issue a proclamation to accompany the congressional resolution, addressed “To the People of the Confederate States.”

Davis conceded that he was “fully concurring in the views thus expressed by Congress,” but he urged the people to “point with just pride to the history of our young Confederacy… We must not forget, however, that the war is not yet ended, and that we are still confronted by powerful armies and threatened by numerous fleets… Your country, therefore, appeals to you to lay aside all thoughts of gain, and to devote yourself to securing your liberties, without which those gains would be valueless…”

Davis then called on non-combatants to sacrifice even more for the war effort. He asked planters to grow vegetables for the troops rather than cotton or tobacco for profit:

“Let fields be devoted exclusively to the production of corn, oats, beans, peas, potatoes, and other food for man and beasts, and let all your efforts be directed to the prompt supply of these articles in the districts where our armies are operating.”

Focusing on shortages in the army rather than shortages among civilians, Davis stated, “The supply of meat for the Army is deficient. This deficiency is only temporary, for measures have been adopted which will, it is believed, soon enable us to restore the full ration.”

Claiming that the Confederacy enjoyed a food surplus, Davis announced:

“Even if the surplus be less than is believed, is it not a bitter and humiliating reflection that those who remain at home, secure from hardship and protected from danger, should be in the enjoyment of abundance, and that their slaves also should have a full supply of food, while their sons, brothers, husbands, and fathers are stinted in the rations on which their health and efficiency depend?”

The proclamation did little to either reduce the suffering among southerners or boost morale for the war effort.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271, 273-74; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 166; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 279; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 334-35; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 613; 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), Q263

Federals Invade Charleston Harbor

April 7, 1863 – Federal ironclads launched a doomed attack on the Confederate forts guarding Charleston Harbor.

Adm S.F. Du Pont | Image Credit: Flickr.com

The Lincoln administration had pressured Rear Admiral Samuel F. Du Pont, commanding the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, to capture the forts in Charleston Harbor, which would lead to the fall of Charleston itself. Charleston, site of Fort Sumter, was more of a symbolic than a strategic objective for the Federal high command.

Du Pont had been reluctant to attack the forts ringing the harbor because he doubted the new ironclads had the power to reduce such strong fortifications. He also could not rely on army support, as Major General David Hunter (commanding the Federal Department of the South) had no intention of attacking such a strong position.

Unable to put it off any longer, Du Pont dispatched the ironclads U.S.S. Keokuk, Montauk, Passaic, and Patapsco to the North Edisto River and positioned other gunboats in preparation for the impending assault on the 1st. Du Pont arrived at Edisto Island the next night and issued orders to his ship commanders on the 4th:

“… The Squadron will pass up the main channel without returning the fire of the batteries on Morris Island, unless signal should be made to commence action. The ships will open fire on Fort Sumter when within easy range, and will take up position to the northward and westward of that fortification, engaging its left or northeast face at a distance of from 600 to 800 yards firing low and aiming at the center embrasure… After the reduction of Fort Sumter it is probable that the next point of attack will be the batteries on Morris Island. The order of battle will be line ahead…”

Du Pont assembled his ironclad fleet on the afternoon of April 5. Federals had placed buoys in the channel off the Stono bar to mark the safe passage, with the gunboats U.S.S. Catskill and Patapsco guarding the buoys. Du Pont assigned steamers to tow off any vessels that might be disabled in the impending assault.

The attack fleet consisted of nine ironclads: the U.S.S. Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, New Ironsides (Du Pont’s flagship), Catskill, Nantucket, Nahant, and Keokuk. The ships had 32 15-inch guns to face 76 guns in the harbor forts. The ships crossed the Charleston bar and prepared to attack, but hazy weather rendered pilots unable to judge the ranges, so it was postponed for a day. The ships anchored just outside the harbor that night.

The tides delayed the attack on the 7th until around noon. The fleet began advancing toward the main channel leading into the harbor single-file, with the Weehawken under Captain John Rodgers leading the way. But the raft that the Weehawken was pushing to offset Confederate torpedoes got tangled with the main ship, causing another delay. The advance finally got under way in earnest around 3 p.m.

This was the largest naval attack of the war. The Confederates knew the attack was coming, and Charleston residents lined the shore to watch the action. As the fleet headed for Fort Sumter, the Confederate garrison there raised their flag and fired a salute to the Confederacy while a band played “Dixie.”

Federal attack on Charleston | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federal ships struggled to get past the obstructions and over the sandbars. Confederates had also placed markers in the water to guide the range of their guns. Federal captains had trouble navigating the strong flood tide sweeping into the harbor as they came under fire.

Intense fire opened from Fort Sumter and nearby Sullivan’s and Morris islands. The Federals returned fire, but the ironclads’ slow guns could not match the enemy’s cannonade. A witness called the Confederate cannonade, “Sublime, infernal, it seemed as if the fires of hell were turned upon the Union fleet.” A naval officer said, “Such a fire I never saw. Nothing could be heard but the whistling of shot.”

The Federal ships fired 154 rounds, hitting Fort Sumter 55 times. But the Confederates fired 2,209 rounds and scored over 400 direct hits that destroyed decks, riddled smokestacks, penetrated armor, and disabled guns. The Weehawken took 53 hits and struck a torpedo. The Passaic took 35 hits and had her main gun turret disabled. The Montauk under Captain John L. Worden took 47 hits, as did the Patapsco. The New Ironsides was disabled and sat helpless above a 2,000-pound torpedo. Confederates tried detonating the torpedo, but a faulty wire saved the ship and crew, including Du Pont.

The Catskill was next in line, sustaining 20 hits and taking in water. The Nantucket took 51 hits that disabled her turret. The Nahant was crippled by 36 hits. The Keokuk got within 600 yards of Fort Sumter but sustained 90 hits, 18 of which penetrated the iron near the waterline. “Riddled like a colander,” the ship fell back toward Morris Island and sank later that night. Confederates later recovered the Keokuk’s signal books and learned all the Federals’ naval codes.

In addition, two Confederate spar-torpedo boats (oar-driven vessels with mines attached to a spar to ram enemy ships) went to confront the Federal ships still inside the Stono bar, but the Federals withdrew before they arrived.

The Federals sustained 23 casualties (one killed and 22 wounded), and the Confederates lost 14 (four killed and 10 wounded). Du Pont’s flagship signaled a withdrawal around 5 p.m., as the sun began setting. The harbor proved to be “a circle of fire not to be passed.” A Charleston resident wrote of the Federal ships, “It was a most signal defeat for them. We did not use half of our guns and had no recourse to rams, torpedoes, etc.” His “only regret is that the fleet did not make more of a fight so as to be more badly damaged.”

Du Pont planned to renew the assault the next morning until he received the damage reports from his commanders. Five ships were heavily damaged. Du Pont held a council of war and announced, “We have met with a sad repulse. I shall not turn it into a great disaster.” Du Pont reported to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “I determined not to renew the attack, for, in my judgment, it would have converted a failure into a disaster.” Every captain agreed, confident that naval force alone could not take the harbor.

Du Pont wrote to Hunter the next day that his suspicions about the ironclads’ abilities had been confirmed: “I attempted to take the bull by the horns. but he was too much for us. These monitors are miserable failures where forts are concerned.” Du Pont urged Welles to publicly acknowledge that the failed assault was due to the ironclads being unfit for the purpose, but Welles refused.

Lincoln was greatly disappointed by the defeat, and he ordered Du Pont, “Hold your position inside the bar near Charleston, or, if you shall have left it, return to it, and hold it till further orders.” Lincoln hoped the Federal presence would keep the Confederates anxious and prevent them from building more defenses.

News of this defeat brought tremendous criticism upon Du Pont. Charles C. Fulton, who had witnessed the battle, wrote a damning article in the Baltimore American titled, “A Disgraceful Result.” Fulton claimed the ships could have taken Fort Sumter if they were given more time before withdrawing. Fulton wrote, “Oh, that we had a (Admiral David) Farragut here to take command at once, and do what has been so weakly attempted by Admiral Du Pont.”

Du Pont blamed Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus V. Fox for allowing such an article to be published because Fox had assigned Fulton to witness the battle. Welles concluded that the captains who agreed with Du Pont’s decision to withdraw would not have done so had they not been part of Du Pont’s inner circle.

Welles refused to publish any reports about the ironclads’ weaknesses because “there was no necessity for us to proclaim that weakness to our enemies… Du Pont is morbidly sensitive, and to vindicate himself wants to publish every defect and weakness of the ironclads and to disparage them, regardless of its effect in inspiring the Rebels to resist them, and impairing the confidence of our own men.” Welles and the Federal high command began seeing Du Pont as the main impediment to capturing Charleston.

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 191; Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 115-18; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Delaney, Norman C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 230; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 270-74; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9225; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 224, 226-30, 232; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 278, 280; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 335-38; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 645-46; 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. 146-48; Melton, Maurice, Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 131; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640-41; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 703

The Army of the Potomac: The Grand Review

April 4, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln headed a group leaving Washington to review Major General Joseph Hooker’s revamped Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln boarded the steamer Carrie Martin to go to Hooker’s headquarters at Falmouth in northern Virginia. He was accompanied by First Lady Mary Lincoln, his son Tad (celebrating his 10th birthday), Attorney General Edward Bates, old Springfield friend Dr. Anson G. Henry, Sacramento Union correspondent Noah Brooks, and others. The trip began amidst a heavy snowstorm.

Maj Gen Joseph Hooker | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

At Falmouth, Hooker proceeded with plans to destroy the Confederate army and march on Richmond. He directed all corps commanders to move surplus baggage to the rear and notified the War Department to have siege equipment ready for when the army arrived outside the Confederate capital. This included shovels, picks, axes, and sandbags, along with a naval flotilla to bring 1.5 million rations up the Pamunkey River for the troops.

The presidential party arrived on the 5th, Easter Sunday. They disembarked at Aquia Creek, which had been decorated with patriotic bunting and flags to welcome them. A special train took them to Hooker’s headquarters, three miles from the Rappahannock River. Hooker’s chief of staff, Major General Daniel Butterfield, showed the guests to their quarters, which consisted of three large hospital tents.

Lincoln met with Hooker and began discussing strategy. When Lincoln said, “If you get to Richmond, General,” Hooker cut him off: “Excuse me, Mr. President, but there is no ‘if’ in this case. I am going straight to Richmond if I live.” Lincoln later told Noah Brooks, “That is the most depressing thing about Hooker. It seems to me that he is over-confident.” The president later added, “The hen is the wisest of all the animal creation, because she never cackles until the egg is laid.”

Lincoln also disapproved of Hooker’s ongoing debate with his commanders on how best to get around the Confederate army and take Richmond. Hooker’s recent request for siege equipment indicated that his grand objective was the enemy capital and not the enemy army. Lincoln tried settling this matter with a memorandum making it clear that “our prime object is the enemies’ army in front of us, and is not with, or about, Richmond…”

Hooker planned a cavalry review of the “finest army on the planet” for his visitors that day, but the snowstorm postponed it to the 6th. On that date, the presidential party watched over 15,000 horsemen pass them in the largest concentration of cavalry ever assembled on the continent. This was the new Cavalry Corps that Hooker had created, led by Major General George Stoneman.

Attorney General Bates called the cavalry parade “the grandest sight I ever saw.” Young Tad especially enjoyed the pageantry. Hooker made sure to stage the review in plain sight of the Confederates across the Rappahannock as an impressive show of force. Hooker also hoped that staging such reviews would boost army morale. He told Lincoln, “I only regret that your party is not as large as our hospitality.”

Lincoln and the other guests spent the next few days observing more reviews and riding among the troops. Hooker staged a “Grand Review” of the infantry on the 9th, which a Pennsylvania officer called “the most magnificent military pageant ever witnessed on this continent.”

Nearly 85,000 troops marched past President and Mrs. Lincoln and their son in lines stretching for miles on Falmouth Heights. A correspondent on the scene reported that “the President merely touched his hat in return salute to the officers, but uncovered to the men in the ranks.”

Lincoln and Hooker sat upon their horses beside each other, with Lincoln in his usual tailcoat and stovepipe hat, and Hooker in full dress uniform. Many soldiers considered Lincoln “an ungainly looking man,” but they cheered him out of respect “for his integrity, and good management of the war.” A soldier described the first lady as “a pleasant, but not an intelligent looking woman.”

The president met with Hooker and Major General Darius N. Couch, the senior corps commander, before returning to Washington on the morning of the 10th. The Army of the Potomac now numbered 133,450 effectives and 70 batteries totaling 412 guns. The Confederates had less than half this strength. Lincoln told Hooker and Couch, “I want to impress upon you two gentlemen, in your next fight, put in all your men.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271-72; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9192-203, 9214-25; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 235, 249-51; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 278; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 513-16; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 102-03, 111; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 335-36; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 585; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 127-29

The Siege of Washington

April 3, 1863 – Confederates within Major General D.H. Hill’s military department tried destroying a Federal garrison on the North Carolina coast.

Hill had tried regaining New Bern in March. When that failed, he turned to nearby Washington. The Confederates blocked the roads to prevent the transfer of reinforcements from New Bern, while the Federals at Washington built an elaborate trench system to repel the attackers. The Confederates positioned batteries along the Pamlico River, east of Washington, to prevent Federal gunboats from rescuing the garrison. Guns were placed at both Hill’s Point and Swan’s Point on the river’s south bank, and obstructions were placed in the river.

Gen J.G. Foster | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals were led by Brigadier General John G. Foster, commanding the Department of North Carolina. The Confederates began laying siege to Foster’s garrison by encircling the Federals and cutting off their supply line. Federal gunboats hurried to relieve the Federals under siege, and on the 2nd they silenced the Confederate battery at Hill’s Point. This naval aid indicated that Federal communications were still operational.

The next morning, the Federals got a morale boost when the gunboats silenced the Confederate battery just outside Washington. However, the Confederates met Federal relief forces under Brigadier General Francis B. Spinola at Blount’s Creek and sent them running. This was the second failed attempt to relieve the garrison over the last 10 days. Foster resolved to escape from Washington himself and personally lead Federal reinforcements from New Bern.

On the 13th, the Federal transport steamer Escort delivered food, ammunition, and reinforcements to the Federal garrison at Washington while under heavy fire from Confederate batteries along the Tar River. The Escort’s crewmen had placed hay bales on the decks to absorb the fire, but no shots hit the vessel.

Two days later, Foster left Washington aboard the Escort. Confederate guns scored nearly 40 hits on the ship near Hill’s Point, but none did serious damage as the ship made it past the guns and the obstructions. This opened a line from which the Federals could get reinforcements and supplies, thus breaking the Confederate siege. Also, some Confederates had been pulled out of the siege line by Lieutenant General James Longstreet, overall Confederate commander in the region, to join in his siege of Suffolk.

This further weakened the operation until Hill decided to pull out. His rear guard clashed with Federals at Kinston as the Confederates withdrew. Although the Confederates had failed to capture either New Bern or Washington, they kept the Federals occupied in those towns while other Confederates gathered much needed foodstuffs in the region for General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

Nevertheless, Hill was disgusted by the failure to capture Washington. He issued General Order No. 8, which praised his troops’ conduct but rebuked the North Carolina militia for failing to join his cause.

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 87-88, 90; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 266, 270, 275; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 258; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 273, 276-77, 281-82; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 362

The Richmond Bread Riot

April 2, 1863 – A mob of mostly women stormed the business district of the Confederate capital demanding relief from the epidemic of shortages plaguing the Confederacy.

The winter of 1862-63 had been the worst ever for the new Confederacy. Dwindling supplies increased demand, resulting in soaring prices and civil unrest in various southern cities. This was especially true in Richmond, where the population had doubled since the war started and the armies had ravaged much of the food producing area in the state. The rising cost of necessities left many to go hungry.

Richmond Bread Riot | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Hundreds of angry citizens, mostly women, gathered at the Oregon Hill Baptist Church on Holy Thursday to express their rage. They then stormed Richmond’s business district, shouting, “Bread! Bread!” A witness recalled talking to a young woman involved in the protest:

“As she raised her hand to remove her sunbonnet, her loose calico sleeve slipped up, and revealed a mere skeleton of an arm. She perceived my expression as I looked at it, and hastily pulled down her sleeve with a short laugh. ‘This is all that’s left of me!’ she said. ‘It seems real funny don’t it? We are starving. We are going to the bakeries and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men.’”

Some men and boys joined the mob until it grew to about 1,000 people. Governor John Letcher and the mayor of Richmond came out to calm the protestors to no avail. They smashed store windows and doors on Main and Cary, seizing items such as flour, meal, and clothing. Ruffians and emboldened protestors soon joined forces to begin looting stores for luxury items such as jewelry, furniture, and other fineries.

Letcher dispatched state militia to restore order, and the Richmond mayor threatened to order the militia to open fire if the crowd did not disperse. The mob refused to comply, possibly because the militia consisted of acquaintances or even husbands of the rioters. President Jefferson Davis then appeared and climbed atop a wagon to be seen in the crowd. According to a witness:

“He urged them to return to their houses, so that the bayonets there menacing them might be sent against the common enemy. He told them that such acts would bring famine upon them… as it would deter people from bringing food to the city. He said he was willing to share his last loaf with the suffering people… and he trusted we would… continue united against the Northern invaders, who were the authors of all our sufferings.”

Davis yelled, “You say you are hungry and have no money. Here is all I have. It is not much, but take it.” He threw all the money from his pockets into the crowd. He then pulled out his pocket watch and said, “We do not desire to injure anyone, but this lawlessness must stop. I will give you five minutes to disperse. Otherwise you will be fired on.”

When a large crowd remained after four minutes, Davis held up his pocket watch and announced, “My friends, you have one minute more.” The rioters finally disbanded. Davis directed the police to arrest the most prominent members of the mob; they were tried and briefly jailed.

Davis unofficially asked the Richmond press to “avoid all reference directly or indirectly to the affair,” and he instructed the telegraph companies to “permit nothing relative to the unfortunate disturbance… to be sent over the telegraph lines in any direction for any purpose.” Davis feared that reports of incidents such as these would embolden Federal troops and demoralize Confederates.

Secretary of War James A. Seddon directed military authorities to order the Richmond newspapers to print no articles about the rioting because it would serve “to embarrass our cause (or) to encourage our enemies.” The lead editorial in the April 3 Richmond Dispatch was titled, “Sufferings in the North.” Meanwhile, women and other “non-draftables” continued gathering to beg for food until the City Battalion drove them off.

The Richmond Enquirer broke the press silence on the 4th, but in support of the administration. The Enquirer reported that rumors of the riot were unnecessarily harming morale because the rioters were merely “a handful of prostitutes, professional thieves, Irish and Yankee hags, gallows birds from all lands but our own… (they broke into) half a dozen shoe stores, hat stores and tobacco houses and robbed them of everything but bread, which was just the thing they wanted least.”

The Richmond city council approved a motion stating that the incident had been “in reality instigated by devilish and selfish motives,” but a week later the council members quietly approved allocating $24,000 to feed the citizens. This helped quiet the growing unrest. However, similar outbreaks occurred in Augusta, Columbus and Milledgeville in Georgia, in Salisbury, North Carolina, and in Mobile, Alabama.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 134-36; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 103-04; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 271; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 163-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 277; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 334; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 617-18; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 199

Vicksburg: Grant Changes Strategy

April 1, 1863 – Major General Ulysses S. Grant finally conceded the impossibility of capturing Vicksburg from the north and began devising another, more daring, plan.

Federal General U.S. Grant | Image Credit: Wikispaces.org

By this time, Grant had failed or was on the verge of failing in five efforts to reach Vicksburg:

  • Overland via the Mississippi Central Railroad
  • On water via Chickasaw Bayou
  • On water via various canal projects
  • On water via Steele’s Bayou
  • On water via Yazoo Pass

Rear Admiral David D. Porter brought Grant and Major General William T. Sherman, Grant’s most trusted subordinate, on a reconnaissance mission. They boarded the U.S.S. Tuscumbia and steamed up the Yazoo River to Haynes’s Bluff, where Confederates had placed batteries north of Vicksburg. Grant went on this mission figuring he would have “to collect all my strength and attack Haynes’ Bluff.” Understanding that such an effort would involve heavy loss, Grant nonetheless stated, “I think it can be done.”

As the Tuscumbia approached, Grant observed the enemy batteries in the heights above. He also noted the natural obstacles and enemy torpedoes that could sink naval vessels. Grant wrote Porter the next day, “After the reconnaissance of yesterday, I am satisfied that an attack upon Haynes’ Bluff would be attended with immense sacrifice of life, if not with defeat. This, then, closes out the last hope of turning the enemy by the right (north).”

Grant had been working on another plan to operate on the other side of the Mississippi River from Vicksburg. This involved moving Federal troops from Milliken’s Bend, above Vicksburg, to New Carthage below. But Grant meant for this operation to support Major General Nathaniel P. Banks’s advance on Port Hudson, not to take Vicksburg. Grant feared that this operation could take months or until the Lincoln administration lost patience and called it off.

After seeing that attacking Haynes’s Bluff would be futile, Grant started reworking the Milliken’s Bend plan to take Vicksburg rather than support Banks. Grant wrote, “I have sent troops through from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, to garrison and hold the whole route and make the wagon road good.”

From New Carthage, Federals could cross the Mississippi and attack either Grand Gulf or Warrenton, which guarded the back door to Vicksburg from the south. Grant wrote, “It is important to prevent the enemy from further fortifying either of these places. I am satisfied that one army corps, with the aid of two gunboats, can take and hold Grand Gulf until such time as I might be able to get my whole army there and make provision for supplying them.”

The troops currently at Milliken’s Bend belonged to XIII Corps under Major General John A. McClernand. They were in the process of clearing the path for men and supplies to move to New Carthage. McClernand reported to Grant, “I am now repairing the roads and bridges between here and Richmond, a distance of 12 miles, including a floating bridge of 200 feet in length, and will soon commence repairing the road from that place to (New) Carthage, and constructing barges to ply between the same places, unless stopped by unknown obstacles.”

Grant and McClernand had never gotten along; Grant was a West Pointer and McClernand was a former politician with connections going all the way up to President Abraham Lincoln. When Grant asked McClernand to detach some of his troops to dig a levee, McClernand replied:

“I think it probable that you would not have ordered it with a fuller knowledge of my operations… the prospect so far is quite encouraging… and I hope you will find it consistent with your general views to leave me to prosecute my present undertaking with all the resources at my disposal.”

Porter disagreed with Grant’s plan to march the army down the west bank of the Mississippi. He believed Grant should pull his army back to Memphis and march overland along the Mississippi Central Railroad to Vicksburg as he had tried in December. But the northern public and the administration would view this as yet another defeat, which could be detrimental to the careers of all involved.

Grant met with Porter on the 2nd and described the plan in greater detail:

  • Sherman’s corps would feign an attack on Haynes’s Bluff as a diversion
  • Grant’s remaining two corps would move from Milliken’s Bend to New Carthage, building roads during the march
  • Porter’s fleet would pass the Vicksburg batteries with gunboats, transports, and supply vessels, and meet Grant’s troops at Hard Times, 30 miles south of the city
  • The ships would ferry the troops to the east bank of the Mississippi, where Grant would advance on Vicksburg from the south

Porter still expressed reluctance, warning Grant that “when these gunboats once go below we give up all hopes of ever getting them up again.” But Navy Secretary Gideon Welles urged Porter to cooperate, writing that if the operation succeeded, it would be “the severest blow that can be struck upon the enemy,” and thus “worth all the risk.”

On the Confederate side, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, commanding the Department of Mississippi and East Louisiana, endured not only mounting Federal threats to Vicksburg, but mounting criticism of his abilities as well. President Jefferson Davis defended Pemberton, writing that “by his judicious imposition of his forces and skillful selection of the best points of defence he has repulsed the enemy at Vicksburg, Port Hudson, on the Tallahatchie and at Deer Creek, and has thus far foiled his every attempt to get possession of the Mississippi river and the vast section of country which it controls.”

Pemberton had requested reinforcements from General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the Confederate Western Department. Pemberton specifically wanted Major General Earl Van Dorn’s cavalry operating in western Tennessee. But Johnston replied:

“In the present aspect of affairs, General Van Dorn’s cavalry is much more needed in this department than in that of Mississippi and East Louisiana, and can not be sent back as long as this state of things exists. You have now in your department five brigades of the troops you most require, viz., infantry, belonging to the Army of Tennessee. This is more than a compensation for the absence of General Van Dorn’s cavalry command.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 127-29; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 18429; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 270-71; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 217; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 276-77; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 83; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 334; 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. 164-65