Tag Archives: David Hunter

The Shenandoah Valley: Hunter Reaches Lynchburg

June 17, 1864 – Major General David Hunter’s Federal Army of West Virginia closed in on the key railroad town of Lynchburg as Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Confederate Army of the Valley arrived to defend it.

Hunter’s Federals moved out of Lexington on the 13th, after burning and looting much of the town. Hunter had been delayed due to Confederate partisans harassing his supply lines, but now he had his entire force ready to move toward his main objective: the intersection of three railroads at Lynchburg.

Major General John C. Breckinridge | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

The Federals moved southeast through Buchanan. Major General John C. Breckinridge, commanding the few Confederates left in the Shenandoah Valley, ordered Brigadier General John D. Imboden to pursue Hunter with his cavalry and, “Lose no time in finding their direction.” Skirmishing occurred at New Glasgow, but the Federals continued forward through the Peaks of Otter in the Blue Ridge before occupying Liberty on the night of the 15th.

Breckinridge issued peremptory orders for Imboden to pursue Hunter: “I want you to find his position, and purposes, at all hazards.” Frustrated by Imboden’s reluctance, Breckinridge telegraphed Richmond: “Enemy reported to be advancing, in force not known. The cavalry, under Imboden, doing less than nothing. If a good general officer cannot be sent at once for them, they will go to ruin.”

Breckinridge arrived at Lynchburg on the 16th with just two small brigades totaling 2,000 men. Major General D.H. Hill, who was awaiting reassignment at Lynchburg, helped Breckinridge prepare defenses in the hills southwest of town. Meanwhile, Early’s army (formerly Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia) reached Charlottesville on its way west to reinforce Lynchburg.

From Charlottesville, Early notified Breckinridge, “My first object is to destroy Hunter, and the next it is not prudent to trust to telegraph. Hold on and you will be amply supported.” Early later wrote, “The trains were not in readiness to take the troops on board until sunrise on the morning of the 17th, and then only enough were furnished to transport about half of my infantry.”

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Early and half his force reached Lynchburg at 1 p.m. on the 17th, with the rest of his force following on the slow-moving trains. Early’s troops joined the other Confederates in the defenses as Confederate cavalry under both Imboden and Brigadier General John McCausland stalled the Federal advance about four miles from Lynchburg. Early directed Major General Stephen D. Ramseur’s men to build a redoubt about two miles from the town.

Hunter issued orders not to attack Lynchburg until all his Federal troops were up and ready for deployment. By that time, it was near sundown, so Hunter halted for the night, planning to attack in the morning. Many of his officers and men strongly objected to stopping the advance, but Hunter was short on both ammunition and supplies due to ongoing disruptions to his supply lines.

That night, Early instructed the soldiers and civilians to make the Confederate force defending Lynchburg seem larger than it was. The people made as much noise as possible, and trains pulled in and out of town all night, indicating to the Federals that the Confederates were being heavily reinforced.

Next morning, Hunter probed the Confederate lines and decided they were too strong for a frontal assault. He directed Brigadier General George Crook to move around the enemy right, but Early’s seasoned veterans launched a surprise attack that drove him back. The Confederates then attacked Hunter’s other division under Brigadier General Jeremiah C. Sullivan while their artillery neutralized the Federal guns.

The Confederates disengaged near sundown and returned to their defenses. Hunter opted not to counterattack because he believed he was outnumbered, and he was still short on ammunition. He fell back at nightfall, having lost his nerve in the face of an inferior enemy. Hunter’s withdrawal emboldened Early, who directed his Confederates to pursue the Federals.

Hunter fell back northwest into West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley, stopping at Sweet Sulphur Springs to collect supplies. The hungry Federals fought each other over the much-needed provisions. Hunter’s withdrawal left the Shenandoah wide open for the Confederates all the way to the Potomac River. Early recalled:

“As the enemy had got into the mountains, where nothing useful could be accomplished by pursuit, I did not deem it proper to continue it farther… I had seen my soldiers endure a great deal, but there was a limit to the endurance even of Confederate soldiers. I determined, therefore, to rest on the 22nd, so as to enable the wagons and artillery to get up, and prepare the men for the long march before them.”

The next day, the Confederates turned onto the path that Hunter had taken from Staunton to Lynchburg. According to Early:

“The scenes on Hunter’s route from Lynchburg had been truly heart-rending. Houses had been burned, and helpless women and children left without shelter. The country had been stripped of provisions and many families left without a morsel to eat. Furniture and bedding had been cut to pieces, and old men and women and children robbed of all the clothing they had except that on their backs. Ladies’ trunks had been rifled and their dresses torn to pieces in mere wantonness. Even the negro girls had lost their little finery.

“We now had renewed evidences of the outrages committed by Hunter’s orders in burning and plundering private houses. We saw the ruins of a number of houses to which the torch had been applied by his orders. At Lexington he had burned the Military Institute, with all of its contents, including its library and scientific apparatus; and Washington College had been plundered and the statue of Washington stolen.

“These are but some of the outrages committed by Hunter or his orders, and I will not insult the memory of the ancient barbarians of the North by calling them ‘acts of vandalism…’ Hunter’s deeds were those of a malignant and cowardly fanatic, who was better qualified to make war upon helpless women and children than upon armed soldiers. The time consumed in the perpetration of those deeds, was the salvation of Lynchburg, with its stores, foundries and factories, which were so necessary to our army at Richmond.”

The “long march” that Early had referenced would be northward “down” the Valley to invade the North, exact revenge for Hunter’s depredations, and threaten Washington.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20411; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 21-22; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 427-29; 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 9284-304; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 456-58, 460; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 58-61; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 524-25; 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. 739; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 233-34, 376-77, 454

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Hunter Terrorizes the Shenandoah Valley

June 8, 1864 – Brigadier General George Crook’s Federals from West Virginia joined forces with Major General David Hunter’s Army of the Shenandoah and prepared to drive southward “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley from Staunton.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The day after his victory at Piedmont, Hunter became the first Federal commander to lead a force into the key town of Staunton. From there, Hunter was to join forces with Crook and move south to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Lynchburg. Federal troops destroyed all warehouses, barns, mills, workshops, and railroad factories in their path. They then looted and pillaged Staunton and vicinity, causing seething resentment among Valley residents.

Upon learning of Piedmont, General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, detached Major General John C. Breckinridge to return west and take the Valley back. However, Breckinridge had just 2,100 men in two brigades to reinforce the 4,000 Piedmont survivors in protecting the vital railroad junction at Lynchburg.

Meanwhile, Crook’s Federal Army of the Kanawha joined with Hunter, giving the combined force 18,000 men and 30 guns. Both Crook and his cavalry commander, Brigadier General William W. Averell, urged Hunter to continue south to Lynchburg as ordered, but Hunter opted to instead advance on Lexington to the southwest and then march through the Blue Ridge at the Peaks of Otter to get to Lynchburg.

Hunter’s new “Army of West Virginia” headed out of Staunton on the 10th. In response to harassment from Confederate partisans, Hunter directed his troops to live off the land, which included looting civilian homes and farms. Breckinridge reported that Hunter was moving up the Valley to either Lexington or Lynchburg, but his force was too small to stop the Federals.

President Jefferson Davis asked Lee to clear the Federals out of the Valley, but Lee said he could only do so by detaching an entire corps in the face of the opposing Army of the Potomac. Lee concluded, “If it is deemed prudent to hazard the defense of Richmond… I will do so.”

Crook’s Federals reached Lexington around 12 p.m. the next day and entered the town after driving off a small Confederate cavalry force. Hunter stopped to visit the grave of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson before ordering his men to burn the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson had taught before the war. Hunter accused the school administrators of teaching a “treasonous” curriculum and sending cadets out to fight Federal troops at New Market. Hunter did not know that Lee had buried George Washington’s silver beneath VMI for protection.

Hunter set up headquarters in the VMI superintendent’s home, the only building on campus not burned. He also directed his troops to burn Washington College and turn the main building into a horse stable. Outraged, Virginia Governor John Letcher publicly called on the citizens to oppose “the vandal hordes of Yankee invaders.” When Hunter learned of this, he ordered Letcher’s Lexington home burned for issuing “a violent and inflammatory proclamation… inciting the population of the country to rise and wage guerrilla warfare on my troops.”

The looting and destruction continued for three days, during which a Federal soldier wrote, “Many of the women look sad and do much weeping over the destruction that is going on. We feel that the South brought on the war and the State of Virginia is paying dear for her part.” But during this time, Hunter suffered two setbacks:

  • Major General Philip Sheridan’s cavalry, assigned to join him in the drive on Lynchburg, was stopped by Confederate horsemen under Major General Wade Hampton.
  • Confederate partisans led by Colonel John S. Mosby continuously raided Hunter’s supply lines, forcing him to wait at Lexington until all his cavalry could come up.

These setbacks gave Breckinridge more time to prepare defenses at Lynchburg.

Confederate Gen. Jubal Early | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

On the night of the 12th, Lee decided on a daring gamble. He would detach Lieutenant General Jubal Early’s Second Corps from his army and send it west. These Confederates would absorb Breckinridge’s force, secure Lynchburg, and drive Hunter’s Federals out of the Valley. Early was to then move north “down” the Valley and cross the Potomac River into Maryland. From there, he would turn southeast and threaten Washington.

This would leave Lee’s Confederates dangerously outnumbered against the Army of the Potomac, but Lee hoped that Early’s offensive would compel Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant to detach forces, or even withdraw the army altogether, to protect Washington. It may even provoke Grant into launching a hasty attack that could give Lee an opening to destroy his force.

Early received written orders to move out at 3 a.m. on the 13th. He was “to strike Hunter’s force in the rear, and, if possible, destroy it; then to move down the Valley, cross the Potomac near Leesburg in Loudon County, or at or above Harper’s Ferry… and threaten Washington City.”

Early was to leave with all three of his divisions (8,000 men) and an artillery battalion. Early renamed his corps the Army of the Valley and led it out of the Cold Harbor trenches on the morning of the 13th. The troops boarded trains and headed west to Lynchburg, just as Hunter’s Federals finally left Lexington.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 493-94; Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 176; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 20411; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 420-23, 425; 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 6359-69, 6398-408, 6522-41, 6561-91, 9314-34; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 451, 454-55; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 7472-84; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 50-59; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 21; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 516, 519-20; 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. 738-39; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 454

The Battle of Piedmont

June 5, 1864 – Federals scored a decisive victory over a small Confederate force, which enabled Major General David Hunter to continue his southward march “up” Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Hunter’s 8,500-man Federal Army of the Shenandoah moved up the Valley toward Staunton, where it was to be joined by Brigadier General George Crook’s Federals advancing from West Virginia. The combined force would then continue southward and destroy the Virginia Central Railroad at Lynchburg. This would cut off General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia from the Valley’s plentiful foodstuffs.

After defeating the Federals at New Market, Major General John C. Breckinridge had taken most of the Confederates out of the Valley to reinforce Lee’s army at Cold Harbor. Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, aimed to keep the Valley clear of Confederates, and he instructed the Army of the Potomac:

“To aid the expedition under General Hunter, it is necessary that we should detain all the army now with Lee until the former gets well on his way to Lynchburg. To do this effectually it will be better to keep the enemy out of the intrenchments of Richmond than to have them go back there.”

The largest Confederate force still in the Valley was Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s 3,000 cavalrymen. The troopers did their best to impede Hunter’s march up the Valley Turnpike before falling back behind the North River at Mount Crawford. There they blocked the path to Staunton.

Meanwhile, Lee called on Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones, commanding the Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia, to reinforce Imboden with as many troops as he could find. Imboden contacted Jones, “Is it possible for you to aid me?” Jones dispatched two cavalry brigades to stop Crook’s advance in West Virginia, then he led his remaining 2,000 men out of Lynchburg to reinforce Imboden on the 4th.

Hunter’s Federals reached Harrisonburg, eight miles north of Mount Crawford, on the 3rd. From there, Hunter “found the enemy occupying a strong intrenched position at Mount Crawford, on the North River.” The next day, Hunter moved to within striking distance, but despite outnumbering Imboden’s force, he opted to wait until Crook’s 10,000 Federals arrived before attacking.

In the meantime, Hunter kept part of his Federal army in the Confederates’ front as a diversion while moving the rest of his troops southeast to Port Republic. The Federals began crossing the South Fork of the Shenandoah River around 6 p.m.

When Jones and Imboden learned of Hunter’s movements, Imboden suggested falling back to better ground at Mowry’s Hill, about three miles south of the village of Piedmont. Jones directed all the infantry to relocate there while Imboden’s cavalry harassed Hunter’s Federals at Port Republic, about seven miles north of Piedmont.

On the rainy morning of the 5th, the Federals continued their southward advance, with Hunter’s cavalry easily driving off Imboden’s pickets. Imboden attacked with his main force, which made some progress until the Federal numbers proved too great to overcome. Imboden narrowly escaped capture as his troopers fell back toward Piedmont. Jones opted to make a stand in front of Piedmont instead of on Mowry’s Hill. Imboden objected, but Jones was the ranking commander.

Jones’s troops held positions behind hastily built breastworks. Imboden’s cavalry linked with Jones’s right, but while Jones’s men faced north, Imboden’s faced east, thus forming an L-shaped line. The Confederates repelled the initial Federal attacks, but Federal guns disabled most of the Confederate artillery. Jones tried pulling back to align himself better with Imboden, but another Federal attack prevented that.

The Confederates then counterattacked, but the Federals held them off with their artillery and Spencer repeating rifles. According to Colonel William Ely of the 18th Connecticut, “Seeing an excellent opportunity to use cannon, I dispatched an orderly with a request for two howitzers, which came promptly and did excellent service, in knocking the rail pens in splinters amid great slaughter.”

As the Confederates returned to what was left of their breastworks, Jones ordered one of Imboden’s brigades to shift left, thus creating a gap in the line. The Federals quickly advanced to exploit the gap as a Confederate regiment scrambled to close it. Colonel Jacob Campbell of the 54th Pennsylvania recalled:

“Here for a short time a most desperate struggle took place, bayonets and clubbed guns were used on both sides, and many hand-to-hand encounters took place. So sudden and apparently so unexpected to the enemy was our movement on their flank that they were soon compelled to give way in great confusion, despite all efforts of their officers to rally them.”

As Jones urged his troops to hold firm, he was killed by a gunshot wound to the forehead. Jones’s death demoralized the Confederates, who wavered and then broke in retreat. They fled down the East Road to New Hope, where Imboden formed a rear guard that held off the Federal pursuit long enough for the main force to escape through the Blue Ridge. For the first time in the war, a Confederate force had been routed in the Shenandoah Valley.

That night, Brigadier General John C. Vaughn, commanding Imboden’s rear guard, reported to Lee: “My command is much scattered. The enemy is pursuing. I fear I will be forced to leave the Valley. Staunton cannot be held.” Even worse, the two Confederate brigades trying to hold Crook’s Federals back retreated upon learning of the defeat at Piedmont. Crook and Hunter would soon join forces and become too overwhelming for the Confederates to stop.

The Federals sustained 780 casualties (including 420 killed), while the Confederates lost 1,660, of which over 1,000 were captured. This battle finally cleared the region of Confederates, and as Hunter reported, “On the next day, June 6, I occupied Staunton without opposition.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, William C., Death in the Trenches: Grant at Petersburg (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 19-20; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 417-20; 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 6350-69; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 448-51; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 42, 45-50; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 513-14, 516; 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. 737; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 404, 584

The Shenandoah Valley: Sigel Ousted

May 19, 1864 – Major General John C. Breckinridge’s Confederates began leaving the Shenandoah Valley, and Major General Franz Sigel was replaced as Federal commander in the region.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, congratulated Breckinridge for his resounding victory over Sigel’s Federals at the Battle of New Market: “I offer you the thanks of this army for the victory over General Sigel. Press him down the Valley, and if practicable follow him to Maryland.”

Lee and the Confederate high command hoped the Federals would repeat their two-year pattern of abandoning the Valley after a defeat. Lee therefore sent a second message to Breckinridge: “If you can follow Sigel into Maryland, you will do more good than by joining us. (But) if you cannot, and your command is not otherwise needed in the Valley or in your department, I desire you to prepare to join me.”

With Sigel’s Federals retreating northward down the Valley, Breckinridge told Lee that he preferred to bring 2,500 men to Lee’s command in eastern Virginia rather than chase Sigel to Maryland. Lee answered, “Proceed with infantry to Hanover Junction by railroad. Cavalry, if available, can march.”

Breckinridge’s Confederates began heading east on the 19th. That same day, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, the overall Federal commander, gladly accepted Chief of Staff Henry W. Halleck’s suggestion to replace Sigel as head of the Federal Department of West Virginia. Grant had never been impressed with Sigel’s abilities, and his embarrassing defeat at New Market reinforced this assessment.

Maj Gen David Hunter | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Major General David Hunter replaced Sigel. When Hunter reached department headquarters near Strasburg, he sent Sigel north to command the Federal garrison at Harpers Ferry. Hunter was expected to move from Staunton to Lynchburg, wrecking the important Virginia Central Railroad. The Federals would be “living off the country” during the march, destroying anything useful to the Confederacy and driving Confederate forces out of the region. The pattern of regrouping for months before resuming the offensive in the Valley would be broken.

Meanwhile, the Federal force that was supposed to have reinforced Sigel, led by Brigadier General George Crook, reached Meadow Bluff after retreating 50 miles into West Virginia. The men had been tasked with wrecking the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad, but Crook had ordered a withdrawal after receiving an incorrect report that Grant had been defeated at the Wilderness. Crook’s Federals were exhausted and low on supplies, but when Hunter took command, he ordered them to “move immediately on Staunton.”

Hunter introduced a brutal new policy to Valley residents after Confederate guerrillas shot up a Federal wagon train near Newtown: he sent a cavalry unit to burn down the house from where the shots came. The Federals declared that if these attacks continued, “the commanding general will cause to be burned every rebel house within five miles of the place at which the firing occurs.”

Prior to this order, both sides had a tacit understanding that the rights and property of civilians would be respected. But Hunter asserted that Confederate guerrillas were outlaws, and if they could not be caught, then those who aided and abetted them would suffer. This policy of retaliatory arson earned Hunter the nickname “Black Dave.”

Hunter’s newly renamed Army of the Shenandoah, about 8,500 strong, left its camps at Strasburg and Cedar Creek on the 26th, moving south up the Valley turnpike. Hunter’s orders from Halleck were to destroy the Virginia Central Railroad “beyond the possibility of repair for weeks; then, either return to your original base or join Grant, via Gordonsville.”

Meanwhile, Brigadier General William E. “Grumble” Jones was assigned to command the new Confederate Department of Southwestern Virginia now that Breckinridge and his men had gone east. Jones took over Breckinridge’s old Department of Western Virginia, as well as eastern Tennessee. He had about 8,500 infantry and cavalry, and his main responsibilities were to protect Staunton’s warehouses and the crucial Virginia Central.

As Hunter moved south, Confederate cavalry under Brigadier General John D. Imboden felled trees to impede his advance. From New Market, Imboden reported that Hunter was heading for Strasburg, adding, “His cavalry outnumbers ours two to one, his infantry four to one, his artillery four to one. There is no point this side of Mount Crawford where I can successfully resist him.”

The Federals advanced through Woodstock, where, according to Hunter’s chief of staff, Colonel David H. Strother, Hunter was “evidently seeking an apology to burn something” by searching the town jail. Hunter found no prisoners but still planned to burn the town hotel until his aides talked him out of it. On the 30th, Hunter’s Federals returned to New Market and properly interred their dead comrades whom Confederates had only partially buried.

Farther west, Crook’s Federals began moving out of their camps on the Greenbrier River in the Alleghenies. Crook was to move east and join forces with Hunter, giving them a combined force of about 20,000 men. These Federal movements concerned Lee, who directed Jones to “get all the available forces you can and move at once to Imboden’s assistance to defend the Shenandoah Valley.” Action in the Valley would escalate as the enemy forces approached each other in June.

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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. 409, 414; 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 5203-13, 5280-301, 5705-15, 6350-60; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 442-45; Lewis, Thomas A., The Shenandoah in Flames: The Valley Campaign of 1864 (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 24, 39, 41-46; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 506-07, 509; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 376-77, 527-28, 584, 817

Federals Branded War Criminals

August 21, 1862 – President Jefferson Davis issued an executive order authorizing the execution of Federal officers caught using slaves for military purposes against the Confederacy.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

On August 1, the Davis administration issued a general order to all Confederate military commanders to treat Federals violating the rules of civilized warfare as criminals if captured, subject to imprisonment or death. This was a direct response to Major General John Pope’s orders waging war on civilians in northern Virginia. Davis accused Pope of endorsing “the murder of our peaceful inhabitants as spies, if found quietly tilling the farms in his rear, even outside of his lines.”

Davis also singled out the actions of General Adolph von Steinwehr of Pope’s army. Steinwehr had seized five prominent citizens in Page County, Virginia, and proclaimed: “They will share my table and be treated as friends, but, for every one of our soldiers who may be shot by ‘bushwhackers,’ one of these hostages will suffer death, unless the perpetrators of the deed are delivered to me.” Even Pope had reprimanded Steinwehr for his extremism.

The Federal notion of “bushwhackers” was defined in the Confederate order as “the citizens of this Confederacy who had taken up arms to defend their lives and families.” The order accused the Federals of starting “a campaign of robbery and murder against innocent citizens and peaceful tillers of soil.” Had Confederate officials known the Federals would violate the rules of civilized warfare, they would not have agreed to the recent prisoner exchange cartel.

The August 1 order declared that the Confederacy would not retaliate against northern civilians or “the enlisted men of the army of the United States who may be unwilling instruments of the savage cruelty of their commanders.” Rather, the Confederates would target the officers of commanders who violated the rules of war, as they “have the power to avoid guilty action by refusing service under a Government which seeks their aid in the perpetration of such infamous barbarities.”

Captured officers would be imprisoned until the Federal government renounced its harsh policies, and:

“In the event of the murder of any unarmed citizen or inhabitant of this Confederacy, it shall be the duty of the commanding General of the forces of this Confederacy to cause immediately to be hung, out of the commissioned officers prisoners as aforesaid, a number equal to the number of our own citizens thus murdered by the enemy.”

President Davis addressed another issue troubling him on the 1st, writing to General Robert E. Lee:

“The newspapers received from the enemy’s country announce as a fact that Major-General (David) Hunter (commanding the Federal Department of the South) has armed slaves for the murder of their masters, and has thus done all in his power to inaugurate a servile war which is worse than that of the savage, inasmuch as it superadds other horrors to the indiscriminate slaughter of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”

Davis asked Lee to seek confirmation from the Lincoln administration on whether it officially endorsed this policy. Davis feared that arming slaves would add to the “merciless atrocities which now characterize the war waged against us.”

Lee sent a letter to Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck inquiring about:

  • The alleged murder of William B. Mumford by Major General Benjamin F. Butler’s Federal occupation forces in New Orleans
  • The alleged murder of Colonel John Owens by Pope’s Federals in Missouri (before Pope was transferred east)
  • Whether Hunter and Brigadier General John W. Phelps were arming slaves to murder their masters

Davis directed Lee to inform the Lincoln administration that if no response was received within 15 days, the Confederacy would assume the allegations were true and retaliate accordingly. Halleck replied on August 20: “As these papers are couched in language insulting to the Government of the United States, I most respectfully decline to receive them.”

The next day, Davis issued an order branding Hunter and Phelps as “outlaws” for encouraging servile insurrection by recruiting slaves into the military. Davis decreed that any commissioned Federal officer “employed in drilling, organizing, or instructing slaves with a view to their armed service in this war… shall not be regarded as a prisoner of war but held in close confinement for execution as a felon at such time and place as the President shall order.”

The Lincoln administration had stopped Hunter’s and Phelps’s efforts to turn slaves into soldiers (prompting Phelps to resign), but four days later, the War Department granted General Rufus Saxton’s request to recruit 5,000 slaves to serve as combat soldiers on South Carolina’s Sea Islands.

The ideas of waging war against civilians and recruiting blacks into the military were not supported by most Federal commanders. The most vocal opponent was Major General George B. McClellan, who wrote Halleck this month:

“It is my opinion that this contest should be conducted by us as a war, and as a war between civilized nations, that our efforts should be directed toward crushing the armed masses of the rebels, not against the people; but that the latter should, so far as military necessities permit, be protected in their constitutional, civil, and personal rights.”

Regarding slavery, McClellan lectured that the administration “should avoid any proclamations of general emancipation, and should protect inoffensive citizens in the possession of that as well as of other kinds of property. If we do not actively protect them in this respect, we should at least avoid taking an active part on the other side, and let the negro take care of himself.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 21380-88; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 199; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 194; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 246; 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. 565; 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), Q362

The Growing Clamor for Black Military Recruitment

August 4, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln ordered the drafting of militia into the Federal armies but remained reluctant to allow blacks to serve as combatants.

President Abraham Lincoln | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

Lincoln invoked the terms of the newly enacted Militia Act by calling for 300,000 state militiamen to serve nine months. This was on top of the 300,000 three-year volunteers that Lincoln had called for last month. Lincoln decreed that states unable to meet their three-year volunteer quota had to make up for it with more nine-month enlistments, and if any state would not or could not raise their militias, the War Department would take control of the process. This was never effectively carried out.

That same day, two congressmen and a group of “Western gentlemen” presented two Indiana regiments of black men to Lincoln. Congressional Republicans, primarily the Radicals, had long supported freeing slaves and sending them into the military, both to deprive the Confederacy of labor and to increase Federal military strength. Also, the newly passed Confiscation Act authorized the president to arm slaves for combat duty. However, most northerners opposed such a move.

Lincoln upheld popular opinion by declining the offer for the black regiments to serve as armed units. He explained that “to arm the negroes would turn 50,000 bayonets against us that were for us,” meaning that the loyal slave states of Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri could join the Confederacy. Lincoln said he was not ready to allow the men to serve in any capacity other than army laborers, for which they would be paid. Major General Ulysses S. Grant used this policy to make laborers out of fugitive slaves in his military department.

The disappointed men and their sponsors were unaware that Lincoln was in the process of modifying his position on this issue. In a recent cabinet meeting, Lincoln had officially opposed arming blacks for military service, but, according to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, “he was not unwilling that commanders should, at their discretion, arm, for purely defensive purposes, slaves coming into their lines.”

In fact, the 1st South Carolina (African descent) was already armed and trained in Major General David Hunter’s Department of the South. They were even dispatched by Brigadier General Rufus Saxton, military governor of the South Carolina Sea Islands, to St. Simons Island in Georgia to fight local Confederates.

Saxton wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton requesting authority to organize another “5,000 able-bodied men from among the contrabands in this department… to be uniformed, armed, and officered by men detailed from the Army.” They would be paid $8 to $10 per month and given full rations.

Saxton explained that such a move was necessary because the slaves “suffer greatly from fear of attack by their rebel masters, in the event of which they expect no mercy at their hands.” Saxton also predicted that “the rebellion would be very greatly weakened by the escape of thousands of slaves with their families from active rebel masters if they had such additional security against recapture as these men, judiciously posted, would afford them.” He concluded:

“Thus organized, disciplined, and constantly employed, the men would escape demoralization among themselves, and working with and for the soldiers whenever their health or efficiency demanded it, a happy reciprocal influence upon the soldiers and these earnest and ready helpers would almost necessarily be the result.”

Saxton’s letter was delivered to Washington by Robert Smalls, a boat pilot and escaped slave who had delivered the C.S.S. Planter to Federal blockaders. While in transit, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, commanding Federal occupation forces in New Orleans, authorized the recruitment of free blacks as soldiers. Butler argued that such an order did not defy administration policy, which only prohibited the recruitment of slaves.

On August 25, Stanton issued a reply to Saxton that changed the nature of the war:

“In view of the small force under your command and the inability of the Government at the present time to increase it, in order to guard the plantations and settlements occupied by the United States from invasion and protect the inhabitants thereof from captivity and murder by the enemy, you are also authorized to arm, uniform, equip, and receive into the service of the United States such number of volunteers of African descent as you may deem expedient, not exceeding 5,000, and may detail officers to instruct them in military drill, discipline, and duty, and to command them. The persons so received into service and their officers to be entitled to and receive the same pay and rations as are allowed by law to volunteers in the service.”

This was the first official Federal authorization to recruit blacks into the military for combat service, and while it was issued only due to the unique needs within Saxton’s jurisdiction, the order would ultimately be expanded throughout all military departments. This deprived the Confederacy of labor, increased Federal military strength, appeased Radical Republicans, and most importantly, empowered former slaves to fight for their own freedom.

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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. 202; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 188, 191, 195-96; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 247, 250, 254-55; 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. 492, 564

The Battle of Secessionville

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I am proud to announce that this is my 500th post on the Civil War Months blog! Thanks to all of you for your continued support on this project!

June 16, 1862 – Federal forces under Brigadier General Henry W. Benham attacked strong Confederate defenses near the town of Secessionville on James Island, just south of Charleston, South Carolina.

Between 2 and 3:30 a.m., Benham directed his two divisions under Brigadier Generals Isaac I. Stevens and Horatio G. Wright to advance on Confederate fortifications outside Secessionville, commanded by Colonel Thomas G. Lamar. Lamar notified his superior, Brigadier General Nathan G. “Shanks” Evans, who readied his batteries and sent reinforcements to the fort. Lamar had just 500 men, but another 1,500 were on the way.

Near 4 a.m., Stevens’s 3,500 Federals quietly captured the Confederate pickets and crept within range of the Confederates at Secessionville. Stevens led the assault’s first wave, supported by Federal gunboats on the Stono River. Struggling through brush on the left and right, Federals emerged on a narrow passage in the center and were met by Confederate grapeshot from 700 yards. The Federals continued advancing as the Confederates began firing canister that inflicted even more casualties. Within 15 minutes, Stevens saw the attack was futile and ordered a withdrawal to await reinforcements.

The Battle of Secessionville | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Evans arrived with his Confederates to bolster Lamar’s defenses. Benham led Wright’s Federals in an attack on the enemy right, where the Federals were partially hidden by hedgerows. But they were quickly caught in a Confederate crossfire. They silenced the Confederates on their far left and reached the fort’s parapets, but the Confederates ultimately drove them off.

Meanwhile, the Confederate gunners in the fort continued pounding the Federals in their front, making a charge against such strong works over such a narrow strip of ground suicidal. Benham ordered a withdrawal around 9:30 a.m., with the Federals gathering as many of their dead and wounded comrades as they could before falling back.

Benham, who had been ordered by Major General David Hunter not to bring on a general engagement, refused to acknowledge that this was a battle in his report. He wrote that “the main object of the reconnaissance was accomplished in ascertaining the nature of the fort…”

The alarming number of casualties indicated that this was much more than just a reconnaissance. The Federals lost 683 men (107 killed, 487 wounded, and 89 missing) out of about 6,600 on the island, setting back progress in trying to capture Charleston Harbor. The Confederates lost 204 (52 killed, 144 wounded, and eight missing). Evans commended Lamar for the Confederate victory, naming the fortifications Fort Lamar in his honor.

Hunter learned about the fight two days later at his Hilton Head headquarters. He quickly removed Benham from command for “disobeying positive orders and clear instructions.” After Benham argued vehemently in his own defense, Hunter read aloud his June 10 order to Benham:

“In leaving the Stono River to return to Hilton Head I desire, in any arrangements that you may make for the disposition of your forces now in this vicinity, you will make no attempt to advance on Charleston or to attack Fort Johnson until largely re-enforced or until you receive specific instructions from these headquarters to that effect.”

Benham was detained, and President Abraham Lincoln revoked his brigadier general’s commission. Stevens and Wright testified to the War Department that they had both warned Benham he was violating orders not to bring on a battle at their council of war on June 15. Stevens sent a letter to the New York Times claiming that Wright had told Benham that his orders during that council “were, in fact, orders to fight a battle.”

Wright assumed command of Benham’s forces on James Island, with orders from Hunter: “You will not attempt to advance toward Charleston or Fort Johnson till largely re-enforced and until you receive express orders from these headquarters.” If Wright could not hold the position, he was to “make all the necessary dispositions for abandoning James Island and John’s Island, sending off in the first place all your sick and all your stores.”

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References

Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 111; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 183; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 168-70; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 227; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 699; 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. 139; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 427; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 664