Tag Archives: Louis T. Wigfall

The Deteriorating State of the Confederacy

March 13, 1865 – President Jefferson Davis submitted a contentious message to the Confederate Congress as a growing sense of defeat spread throughout the South.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

While Confederate officials became more vocal in their belief that independence could not be attained, Davis refused to publicly acknowledge such a possibility. His continued resistance was reflected in a letter he wrote to influential Virginian Willoughby Newton:

“In spite of the timidity and faithlessness of many who should give tone to the popular feeling and hope to the popular heart, I am satisfied that it is in the power of the good men and true patriots of the country to reanimate the wearied spirit of our people. The incredible sacrifices made by them in the cause will be surpassed by what they are still willing to endure in preference to abject submission, if they are not deserted by their leaders… I expect the hour of deliverance.”

But the future seemed increasingly bleak for Davis. In early March, he received a message from General Edmund Kirby Smith, commanding the Trans-Mississippi Department, in which Smith noted that he was under heavy criticism from the southern press for failing to send troops east to stop the Federal surge. Smith asked Davis to relieve him of command, but while Davis agreed with some of the criticism, he refused to fire Smith.

Davis then turned to Congress, which he believed was not doing enough to sustain the war effort. The members were scheduled to adjourn in mid-March, but Davis urged them to stay on in special session to consider “further and more energetic legislation.” He then accused the senators and congressmen of inaction in the face of emergency.

He requested the modification of laws governing impressments and raising revenue, as well as military recruiting. Specifically, Davis wanted all class exemptions removed from the Conscription Act, a new militia law to strengthen local defenses, and the same power that President Abraham Lincoln had to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

Congress responded by approving legislation allowing for the recruitment of black men into the military, which Davis signed into law. Members also revised the impressment law of March 6, 1863, by forbidding the Confederate government from taking breeding livestock from private farms. However, the members did not act upon any of the president’s other recommendations. Instead they issued a response to Davis’s message, which read in part:

“Nothing is more desirable then concord and cordial cooperation between all departments of Government. Hence your committee regret that the Executive deemed it necessary to transmit to Congress a message so well calculated to excite discord and dissension…”

The members approved a new national flag, which was a modified Stainless Banner, and they voted to give official thanks to Lieutenant General Wade Hampton for his defense of Richmond. Then they adjourned. Many senators and congressmen deeply resented Davis’s charges of obstructionism.

General Joseph E. Johnston, a longtime Davis opponent, wrote to his friend and fellow Davis opponent, Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, in response to Wigfall’s assertion that Davis was in intense anguish over the state of the Confederacy. Johnston wrote, “I have a most unchristian satisfaction in what you say of the state of mind of the leading occupants of the Presidential Mansion. For me, it is very sufficient revenge.”

Near month’s end, when the future appeared even bleaker than when the month began, Davis told a friend, “Faction has done much to cloud our prospects and impair my power to serve the country.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 262-63; 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 17256-66; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 563, 567, 572; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 646-49, 651-54; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 473; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 751; Stanchak, John E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 379; 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), Q165

Lee’s Daring Gamble

May 15, 1863 – Confederate General Robert E. Lee attended a strategy conference with President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet at Richmond, where Lee unveiled a daring plan to invade the North once more.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

After the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee said, “At Chancellorsville we gained another victory. Our people were wild with delight. I, on the contrary, was more depressed than after Fredericksburg; our losses were severe, and again we had gained not an inch of ground, and the enemy could not be pursued.”

Although the victory was sensational, it did nothing to alleviate the growing hardships throughout the Confederacy. Many people lacked the bare essentials due to the Federal blockade and Confederate economic policy, mass inflation had made the cost of living nearly unbearable, and Federal military pressure on all fronts continued relentlessly. Meanwhile, immigrants flooded into the northern states, and with the arming of slaves, the Federal armies outnumbered the Confederates by four-to-one.

The opposing armies in northern Virginia returned to their respective camps at Falmouth and Fredericksburg, as if Chancellorsville never happened. The Federal threat to Richmond remained, and Lee had lost many valuable men, including Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. The manpower shortage was so severe that he had to deny a request from veterans of the Stonewall Brigade to escort Jackson’s body to Richmond.

With Ulysses S. Grant advancing on Vicksburg, the Confederate high command looked to detach one of Lee’s divisions (Major General George Pickett’s of Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps) to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee at Tullahoma. The idea was for Bragg to defeat Major General William S. Rosecrans’s Federal Army of the Cumberland at Nashville and then move southwest to relieve Vicksburg.

Lee wrote Secretary of War James A. Seddon urging him not to do this. Lee argued that the reinforcements would not arrive until the end of the month, and, “If anything is done in that quarter (Mississippi), it will be over by that time as the climate in June will force the enemy to retire.”

To Lee, the administration had to decide whether to hold the Mississippi River or hold Virginia. Holding Virginia meant sending all available resources to Lee. But Lee could not hope to operate in northern Virginia much longer, as the region had been ravaged by the armies and lacked sufficient forage to feed his troops and animals. Lee went to Richmond on the 14th to discuss the situation with Davis and his advisors.

The officials talked about Lee’s continuing struggles with shortages of supplies and manpower as he faced one of the largest, best-equipped armies in the world. Lee said that the situation had “resolved itself into a choice of one of two things: either to retire to Richmond and stand a siege, which must ultimately have ended in surrender, or to invade Pennsylvania.”

Lee asserted that a successful invasion could do all or some of the following:

  • Relieve northern Virginia of the wartime ravages
  • Enable Lee to resupply his army with the rich northern harvests
  • Discredit the Lincoln administration’s prosecution of the war and encourage Peace Democrats (i.e., Copperheads) to agitate for peace
  • Encourage Europe to recognize Confederate independence
  • Compel Grant to abandon Vicksburg and come north to meet the threat

If the Confederates could capture or threaten cities such as Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or even Washington itself, they could force President Abraham Lincoln to sue for peace. Lee was convinced that, unlike the Maryland campaign last September, this would work because the Federals would not have the benefit of a “lost order” to tell them where the enemy would be.

Some cabinet members continued pushing to send part or all of Longstreet’s corps to Tennessee. Davis strongly supported doing everything possible to hold the Mississippi River (i.e., Vicksburg and Port Hudson). Lee argued that doing so would lose Virginia. He said, “The distance and the uncertainty of the employment of the troops are unfavorable.”

The conference lasted several days. By the 16th, only Davis and Postmaster General John Reagan still supported sending part of Lee’s army to Tennessee. Reagan, the only cabinet member from the Trans-Mississippi (Texas), argued that the greatest Federal threat came from the West, not Virginia. The other five cabinet members (Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of War Seddon, Treasury Secretary Christopher G. Memminger, Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, and Attorney General Thomas G. Watts) favored Lee’s plan.

Even Longstreet, who had first suggested the idea of detaching part of his corps, now changed his mind. He wrote Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas, “When I agreed with (Seddon) and yourself about sending troops west, it was under the impression that we would be obliged to remain on the defensive here. But the prospect of an advance changes the aspect of affairs.”

Davis called for an unofficial vote on the night of the 16th, and all but Reagan sided with Lee. The next morning, Reagan urgently asked Davis to hold another meeting to reconsider approving Lee’s plan. Davis agreed, but Reagan could not convince anyone to change their votes. Lee’s plan was approved.

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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. 361, 383-84; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 12-16, 22-23; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 430-33; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 293, 296; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5560-71; Goolrick, William K., Rebels Resurgent: Fredericksburg to Chancellorsville (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 159; 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. 646-48; Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, Burns, Ken, The Civil War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), p. 214; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307-08; 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

Davis Calls for Confederate Conscription

March 28, 1862 – President Jefferson Davis submitted a special message to the Confederate Congress urging members to approve conscription.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

In mid-March, Davis replaced interim Secretary of War Judah P. Benjamin with George W. Randolph. With many one-year army enlistees about to end their service, Randolph persuaded Davis to support a national military draft. Congress had tried avoiding a draft by passing a law offering bounties and furloughs to volunteers, but General Robert E. Lee, Davis’s military advisor, called the measure “highly disastrous.” Lee voiced support for a new law “drafting them ‘for the war.’”

In his brief message, Davis asserted that “all persons of intermediate ages not legally exempt for good cause, should pay their debt of military service to the country, that the burdens should not fall exclusively on the most ardent and patriotic.”

States’ rights supporters objected to conscription, arguing that such government infringement on individual liberty is what had prompted secession in the first place. Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas called on these opponents to “cease this child’s play… The enemy are in some portions of almost every State of the Confederacy… Virginia is enveloped by them. We need a large army. How are you going to get it?… No man has any individual rights, which come into conflict with the welfare of the country.”

The conscription debate continued into April. Anticipating approval of a draft, Virginia Governor John Letcher allowed the state militia to be absorbed into the Confederate army. This began a system in the Confederate military in which militiamen were assigned to preexisting regiments; this allowed green soldiers to serve alongside (and learn from) more experienced men. The system differed from the Federal military, in which new regiments were created for new recruits, often keeping the green troops separated from the veterans.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com (28 Mar 1862); 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. 430; Spearman, Charles M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 613-14

The Star of the West Mission

January 2, 1861 – President James Buchanan decided to resupply Major Robert Anderson’s Federal troops at Charleston, South Carolina.

By the end of 1860, South Carolina militia had isolated Anderson’s men at Fort Sumter, an island fortress in Charleston Harbor. The Federals would eventually need supplies, but they had been denied any further assistance from the state. A delegation of South Carolinians had come to Washington to demand that President Buchanan remove all troops from Charleston, but Buchanan rejected those demands on December 31. Two days later, the delegates responded:

“You have resolved to hold by force what you have obtained through our misplaced confidence, and by refusing to disavow the action of Major Anderson, have converted his violation of orders into a legitimate act of your executive authority… If you choose to force this issue upon us, the State of South Carolina will accept it…”

Buchanan read this letter to his cabinet and then returned it to the delegates. He refused to officially accept it due to the nature of its language, and this ended negotiations between his administration and South Carolina. Buchanan then resolved to dispatch supplies and reinforcements to Anderson’s “starving garrison.” After receiving almost unanimous support from his cabinet, Buchanan instructed Brevet Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. Army, to direct a relief expedition.

The sloop-of-war U.S.S. Brooklyn received orders to be ready at Norfolk, Virginia for troops and supplies. However, Scott persuaded Buchanan to send a civilian vessel instead to better protect the mission’s secrecy. This turned what could have been a simple relief expedition into a complex, clandestine operation. It also proved very expensive, as Assistant Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas contracted the merchant ship Star of the West for $1,250 per day. Federal officials hoped that this ship, which traveled regularly between New York and New Orleans, would not attract the South Carolinians’ attention.

Star of the West, headed by Captain John McGowan, left New York City on the night of January 5 with supplies and 200 troops. But any hope for secrecy quickly evaporated, as the New York press immediately began leaking rumors of the ship’s mission to southern sympathizers. Interior Secretary Jacob Thompson, the last southerner in Buchanan’s cabinet, resigned not only because he expected his home state of Mississippi to secede, but because he opposed Star of the West’s mission. Before leaving office, Thompson telegraphed Charleston officials that the ship was coming.

Star of the West | Image Credit: Library of Congress

Star of the West | Image Credit: Library of Congress

Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas also learned of the secret plan and notified South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens. But while South Carolinians received word of the ship’s impending arrival, nobody from the War Department notified Anderson that help was coming. On the 8th, Anderson finally learned of the expedition by reading about it in the Charleston Mercury. But since he had yet to receive official word from his superiors, he did not act upon the news.

Star of the West reached Charleston Harbor near sunrise on the 9th and steamed up the main channel toward Fort Sumter. The 200 troops of the 9th U.S. Infantry had orders to hide below decks to avoid detection, but by this time the South Carolinians were prepared to meet them.

At 6 a.m., cadets from the South Carolina Military Academy, or The Citadel, fired on Star of the West from Morris Island. Soon batteries from Fort Moultrie also opened fire. A shot went across the ship’s bow, and a ricochet struck the vessel’s fore-chains. After sustaining a second hit, Captain McGowan decided that the mission was too dangerous and ordered his ship to return to New York.

The Federals at Fort Sumter, unaware of the ship’s presence or mission, did not assist Star of the West. When Anderson officially learned about the mission, he demanded an apology from Governor Pickens for firing on an unarmed vessel bearing the U.S. flag. Pickens refused, arguing that a foreign vessel reinforcing foreign troops on South Carolinian soil could not be permitted because the state was now independent.

Southerners accused Buchanan of trying to provoke a war. Buchanan replied that he merely tried to execute his role as military commander-in-chief. He also argued that his entire cabinet had agreed with the mission, but former Interior Secretary Thompson angrily countered that he had been the lone dissenter before resigning. Thompson called the mission a breach of good faith toward South Carolina. Meanwhile, the South Carolina delegation returned to their state after proposing to meet with delegates of other seceded states at Montgomery, Alabama on February 4 to discuss forming a provisional government.

The Star of the West incident galvanized extremists on both sides. Charleston Mercury editor Robert B. Rhett wrote that South Carolina “has not hesitated to strike the first blow, full in the face of her insulter. We would not exchange or recall that blow for millions! It has wiped out a half century of scorn and outrage.” An editorial in the Atlas and Argus of Albany, New York voiced the prevailing northern opinion by stating, “The authority and dignity of the Government must be vindicated at every hazard. The issue thus having been made, it must be met and sustained, if necessary, by the whole power of the navy and army.”

President Buchanan still hoped that cooler heads would prevail, so he ordered Anderson to take no offensive action while preparing to defend the garrison. At the same time, Anderson rejected Governor Pickens’s demands to surrender Fort Sumter to South Carolina.

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Sources

  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 3757, 3815-27
  • Davis, William C., Brother Against Brother: The War Begins (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-27
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 7, 9
  • Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 69-70
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 20-25
  • 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. 265-66
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 45-46
  • Wallechinsky, David and Wallace, Irving, The People’s Almanac (New York: Doubleday, 1975), p. 180
  • 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), Q161
  • Wikipedia: Star of the West; Timeline of Events Leading to the American Civil War