Tag Archives: Zebulon Vance

North Carolina: Confederates Reclaim Plymouth

April 20, 1864 – Confederate army and navy forces regained a town that enabled them to open the vital Roanoke River to commerce on the North Carolina coast.

By dawn, the C.S.S. Albemarle had cleared the Roanoke River of Federal gunboats, enabling Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke’s Confederate infantry to launch an all-out assault on the Federal fortifications at Plymouth. Hoke’s troops had spent the 19th getting into assault positions, with one of his brigades poised to attack Fort Williams from the east. Brigadier General Henry W. Wessells, commanding the Federal forces, reported that–

“… the enemy was very active, moving in different directions, withdrawing most of his force from the vicinity of Fort Gray, and apparently making a serious demonstration on my right. This state of things continued until dark, when the enemy in strong force succeeded in effecting the crossing of Coneby Creek below the town, and massed his column on my left. This disaster was unexplained, and placed me in a most critical position.”

Gen R.F. Hoke | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Hoke planned for his troops to demonstrate against the Federal right while attacking the Federal left. Wessells spent the night shifting troops to prepare for attacks from either direction, even though he was outnumbered by more than two-to-one. When the Confederates charged on the left and pushed the forward Federal line back, Wessells asked to confer with Hoke.

Wessells wrote that Hoke demanded unconditional surrender, and, “In failure of this, indiscriminate slaughter was intimated.” Despite Hoke’s efforts to be “courteous and soldierlike,” Wessells refused the demand. He reported:

“I was now completely enveloped on every side, Fort Williams, an inclosed work in the center of the line, being my only hope. This was well understood by the enemy, and in less than an hour a cannonade of shot and shell was opened upon it from four different directions. This terrible fire had to be endured without reply, as no man could live at the guns…

“This condition of affairs could not be long endured without a reckless sacrifice of life; no relief could be expected, and in compliance with the earnest desire of every officer I consented to hoist a white flag, and at 10 a.m. of April 20 I had the mortification of surrendering my post to the enemy with all it contained.”

The retaking of Plymouth was the greatest Confederate joint army-navy victory of the war. It was also the Confederates’ greatest victory in North Carolina after a series of defeats that dated all the way back to February 1862. The Federal blockade of the Roanoke River was now broken, allowing the Confederates to receive much-needed supplies from this key waterway.

Hoke received the official thanks of the Confederate Congress and a promotion to major-general. His aide-de-camp reported, “The prisoners will number about 2,500, 300 or 400 negroes, 30 pieces of ordnance, complete garrison outfit, 100,000 pounds of meat, 1,000 barrels of flour, and other provisions… Our loss about 300 in all.”

Major General John J. Peck, commanding the Federal District of North Carolina, frantically notified his superior, Major General Benjamin F. Butler, “The ram (Albemarle) will probably come down to Roanoke Island, Washington, and New Bern. Unless we are immediately and heavily reinforced, both by the army and navy, North Carolina is inevitably lost.” As Peck feared, the Confederates planned to target New Bern next.

Many of the North Carolina Unionists, perhaps recalling that Major General George Pickett had executed their comrades, fled the ranks before the Confederates took over the works. Some black troops also fled to avoid being sent into slavery. Northern newspapers quickly published eyewitness accounts of Confederate troops murdering surrendered black soldiers in cold blood. Sergeant Samuel Johnson of the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry later recalled:

“When I found out that the city was being surrendered, I pulled off my uniform and found a suit of citizen’s clothes, which I put on, and when captured I was supposed and believed by the rebels to be a citizen. After being captured I was kept at Plymouth for some two weeks and was employed in endeavoring to raise the sunken vessels of the Union fleet…”

“Upon the capture of Plymouth by the rebel forces all the negroes found in blue uniform, or with any outward marks of a Union soldier upon him, was killed. I saw some taken into the woods and hung. Others I saw stripped of all their clothing and stood upon the bank of the river with their faces riverwards and there they were shot. Still others were killed by having their brains beaten out by the butt end of the muskets in the hands of the rebels. All were not killed the day of the capture. Those that were not were placed in a room with their officers, they (the officers) having previously been dragged through the town with ropes around their necks, where they were kept confined until the following morning when the remainder of the black soldiers were killed.”

Confederate officials denied the accusations, and the southern press backed them. An editorial in the Richmond Daily Examiner declared, “General Hoke, judging from the large number of his prisoners, does not seem to have made such thorough work as that by which Forrest has so shocked the tender souls, and frozen the warm blood of the Yankees.”

Confederate Chief of Staff Braxton Bragg wrote North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance that President Jefferson Davis–

“… directs that the negroes captured by our forces be turned over to you for the present, and he requests of you that if upon investigation you ascertain that any of them belong to citizens of North Carolina you will cause them to be restored to their respective owners. If any are owned in other States you will please communicate to me their number and the names and places of residence of their owners, and have them retained in strict custody until the President’s views in reference to such may be conveyed to you.”

“To avoid as far as possible all complications with the military authorities of the United States in regard to the disposition which will be made of this class of (black) prisoners, the President respectfully requests Your Excellency to take the necessary steps to have the matter of such disposition kept out of the newspapers of the State, and in every available way to shun its obtaining any publicity as far as consistent with the proposed restoration.”

Thus, the official Confederate policy would be to send all captured black troops into slavery, regardless of whether they had been free before joining the Federal army, and the press would not report on the matter.



Chaitin, Peter M., The Coastal War: Chesapeake Bay to Rio Grande (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 95-96; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 394; 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 2444-73; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 422; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 487; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 365; 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. 793; 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. 184; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 5

Davis Demands Confederate Independence

January 8, 1864 – President Jefferson Davis responded to a letter from North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance urging the Confederate government to try negotiating peace with the U.S. to ease the growing discontent in his state.

Near the end of 1863, Vance wrote Davis about the mounting dissatisfaction among the people in his state regarding the war. Vance wrote, “I have concluded that it will be impossible to remove it except by making some effort at negotiation with the enemy” to relieve “the sources of discontent in North Carolina.”

Vance acknowledged that negotiations must only be conducted on the basis of Confederate independence, and if these “fair terms are rejected” as anticipated, then “it will tend greatly to strengthen and intensify the war feeling, and will rally all classes to more cordial support of the government.”

He then referred Davis to President Abraham Lincoln’s recent Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction, under which 10 percent of a state’s eligible voters could form a new, Unionist state government to rule over the other 90 percent. Vance was concerned that the mounting dissension in North Carolina could produce the requisite 10 percent who would want to return to the Union.

Vance stated “that for the sake of humanity, without having any weak or improper motives attributed to us, we might, with propriety, constantly tender negotiations.” He wrote, “Though statesmen might regard this as useless, the people will not and I think our cause will be strengthened thereby.” The purpose of Vance’s letter was to get Davis to ask the U.S. to negotiate peace, knowing that the U.S. would reject the request. Vance could then use this rejection to show North Carolinians that it was the U.S., not the Confederacy, that was unwilling to talk peace.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Davis’s response did not seem to acknowledge Vance’s true purpose. Instead, the president explained that he had always wanted peace, and had even sent envoys to negotiate peace with the U.S., only to be rejected. No peace could be had that would return the southern states to the Union because, Davis wrote, “Have we not just been apprised by that despot (Lincoln) that we can only expect his gracious pardon by emancipating all our slaves, swearing allegiance and obedience to him and his proclamation, and becoming in point of fact the slaves of our own negroes?”

Appealing to the patriotism of Vance’s state, Davis asked, “Can there be in North Carolina one citizen so fallen beneath the dignity of his ancestors as to accept, or to enter into conference on the basis of these terms?” He acknowledged that some may consider negotiating a return to the Union, but even the “vilest wretch” would not accept emancipation as a condition of their return.

Regarding Lincoln’s amnesty proclamation, Davis argued:

“If we break up our Government, dissolve the Confederacy, disband our armies, emancipate our slaves, take an oath of allegiance binding ourselves to obedience to him and disloyalty to our own States, he proposes to pardon us, and not to plunder us of anything more than the property already stolen from us, and such slaves as still remain.”

Lincoln’s decree only sought to “sow discord and suspicion” by pledging to “support with his army one-tenth of the people… over the other nine-tenths.” This would “excite them to civil war in furtherance of his ends.” No, Davis would not negotiate peace on those terms. He would only negotiate on the basis of Confederate independence and maintaining slavery. He concluded:

“To obtain the sole terms to which you or I could listen, this struggle must continue until the enemy is beaten out of his vain confidence in our subjugation. Then, and not till then, will it be possible to treat of peace. Till then, all tender of terms to the enemy will be received as proof that we are ready for submission, and will encourage him in the atrocious warfare which he is now waging.”



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 450, 454; 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. 696-97

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.



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

The Confederate Conscription Act

April 16, 1862 – President Jefferson Davis signed a bill into law requiring all able-bodied white men between the ages of 18 and 35 to serve at least three years in the Confederate military. This was the first national draft in American history.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

Confederate President Jefferson Davis | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

By this time, Federal forces were closing in on Richmond, New Orleans, and vital points along the Mississippi River and Atlantic coast. The Confederates had just lost thousands of men in the largest battle ever fought in America up to that time, and many men who had enlisted in the Confederate army for 12 months at the beginning of the war were about to go home.

All these factors led to a growing call for conscription, which had been intensely debated in the Confederate Congress. Opponents argued that it violated the same civil liberties southerners had seceded to uphold. Some claimed that forcing men into the army showed weakness by indicating that volunteerism alone was no longer enough to maintain the war effort.

Supporters invoked the same arguments they had rejected when northerners made them before the war, citing the constitutional powers of Congress “to raise and support armies” and “provide for the common defense, as well as to make laws “necessary and proper for carrying into execution the foregoing powers.” They also contended that conscription would provide the military with the manpower desperately needed to secure Confederate independence.

Ultimately, new Secretary of War George W. Randolph persuaded enough congressmen to approve the bill, and then he persuaded Davis to sign it into law. Thus, the Confederacy took the first and most expansive step toward centralizing state and national armies.

State officials would administer the draft, and draftees would be allowed to elect their own company, battalion, and regimental officers. The number of draftees would be proportional to the number of residents in each state and county. A regular recruiting system was also introduced to counter battlefield losses with continuous recruitment.

Soldiers preparing to return home after serving 12 months were now told they had to stay on for another two years or the war’s end, whichever came first. The three total years of service began on the soldiers’ original enlistment dates. Davis initially resisted extending one-year enlistments to three years, but he finally resolved that it was a necessary measure.

Politicians hopeful that the prospect of a draft would stimulate more volunteerism added a provision giving draftees 30 days to volunteer instead. Men could also pay a $500 commutation fee to evade the draft. This clause applied to pacifists such as Quakers and Mennonites; it also aimed to enable skilled laborers and the wealthy to continue serving the Confederacy in non-military capacities.

Another provision allowed for men to hire substitutes to serve in their place from “persons not liable for duty,” usually those outside the specified age range or foreigners. The substitute clause was based on the English tradition of assuming that those who could afford to hire a substitute could be more useful to the war effort outside the army. “Substitute brokers” became a lucrative profession as a result. This provision caused such widespread resentment among those who could not afford to hire a substitute that it was eventually repealed.

The original Conscription Act offered no exemptions from the draft other than commutation or substitution. Realizing that this could deplete the southern workforce, Congress enacted an amendment five days later that included exemptions for many classes and professions, including government workers, war industry laborers (i.e., those working in textiles, mines, foundries, etc.), river ferrymen and pilots, telegraph operators, hospital employees, apothecaries, printers, clergymen, and educators.

These exemptions invited fraud, as many new schools quickly opened, along with pharmacies that featured “a few empty jars, a cheap assortment of combs and brushes, a few bottles of ‘hairdye’ and ‘wizard oil’ and other Yankee nostrums.”

Men who owned 20 or more slaves were also exempted from the draft so they could maintain supervision of farm production and defend against potential slave uprisings. This became known as the “Twenty Negro Law.” It only applied to states that had laws requiring white men to oversee and police their slaves. Many criticized this provision as favoring plantation owners.

Governors Joseph E. Brown of Georgia and Zebulon Vance of North Carolina were among the most virulent critics of the Conscription Act. Brown declared that no “act of the Government of the United States prior to the secession of Georgia struck a blow at constitutional liberty… as has been struck by the conscription act… at one fell swoop, (the act) strikes down the sovereignty of the States, tramples upon the constitutional rights and personal liberty of the citizens, and arms the President with imperial power.”

It was not surprising that Georgia and North Carolina accounted for 92 percent of all exempted government workers in the Confederacy. Even Davis’s own vice president, Alexander H. Stephens, became an outspoken opponent of this measure.

Many who supported the Conscription Act blamed Davis for making it necessary because of his strategy to stay on the defensive and protect many static points at once. Davis countered that “without military stores, without the workshops to create them, without the power to import them, necessity not choice has compelled us to occupy strong positions and everywhere to confront the enemy without reserves.”

The Confederate press generally supported the new law but did not hesitate to expose its weaknesses. Despite resentment to government coercion, many saw this as necessary to meet the wartime emergency. The law affected nearly every Confederate family in some way, even though nearly half of those drafted never served.



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