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Archive for the ‘Civil War period (1861-1865)’ Category

Without doubt, there are others who have done a far better job writing about the importance of the 2008 elections than I ever could.  They’ve talked about the incredible voter turnout.  They have spoken eloquently concerning the call, by the American people, for a change in leadership and a new direction.  And, of course, they’ve highlighted the historical significance of America electing its first African-American President.  I wouldn’t, for a moment, try to match words with any of them.

But since we’re on the subject, let’s talk briefly about another elected President…Jefferson.  No, not Thomas Jefferson.  And no, not the President of the United States.  On November 6, 1861, Jefferson Davis was elected as the first (and only) President of the Confederate States of America.

As a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, he believed that each state had the right to secede from the Union, though he strongly opposed the action.  But the ears of his fellow Southerners were to his words as stone, and the Union dissolved.  Davis’ home state seceded in January of 1861, and Davis resigned from the Senate and returned home, where he joined the army.

When the southern “states” held their Constitutional convention in February of the same year, Davis was named the provisional President of the Confederate States, a position that would become official with the returns from the election held on this day in 1861.

By then, the Civil War was in full swing but, just four years later, the Confederate government would dissolve under the pressure from the Northern armies, the sacking and subsequent capture of the Confederate capital, and the surrender of General Lee.  Jefferson Davis’ 6-year term as President would end about 2 years early, and that time would be mostly spent in jail, reflecting on his tenure as one of the two leaders of the Divided States of America.

Recommended reading: April 1865: The Month That Saved America

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On April 3, 1865, Union forces finally captured the Confederate capital of Richmond.  The end to the American Civil War was in sight.  But if you can believe it, the activities of the night before are even more interesting.

Knowing that Grant’s army was on its way, an order to evacuate the city was given around 4 pm.  The citizens that were able to get out of town did so before dark, but a large number remained – holed up in their houses, afraid for their lives and their belongings.

The military and militia in Richmond were given orders to destroy any remaining weapons, dump the barrels of liquor and burn the tobacco warehouses.  Taking care of the cannons was easy enough as they were just tossed into the river.  Perhaps they should’ve done the same with Richmond’s vast amount of leftover whiskey.  Instead it was merely poured into the gutters.  Men do strange things in desperate times, and I would say that living through four years of death and disease might cause people to go a little crazy.  But the idea that were people literally lapping up whiskey from the streets still seems sub-human.

A little dirt whiskey really emboldens a crowd.  Stores and homes were looted, fights broke out, and there were suddenly no troops or law anywhere to be found while a mob of thousands ran amok.  One resident called the societal breakdown “the saddest of many of the sad sights of the war.”

Around the same time, the tobacco warehouses were finally set ablaze.  But the winds shifted, and suddenly the fire was out of control.  Volunteer firemen tried to put it out, but for reasons probably not even known to them, a mob of people chopped their hoses.  But the time it was over, more than twenty blocks had been destroyed.

To cap off the night’s happenings, the National Arsenal exploded causing a chain-reaction of explosions among the remaining ironclads that had been inconveniently packed with the army’s remaining artillery shells.  Altogether over 100,000 shells exploded over a four-hour period raining fire and debris over the city.

What was supposed to be a peaceful evacuation of the city turned into chaos and even more death and destruction.

Recommended reading: April 1865: The Month That Saved America

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In accordance with his nature, Robert E. Lee wanted to make one final assault in what everyone knew to be the last days of the Confederacy.  All he hoped to do, he told Jeff Davis, was “delay the impending disaster.”  He decided that an assault on Fort Stedman just outside Petersburg, VA might break the Union’s supply lines, and that it would at least cause Ulysses S. Grant some distress.

The plan was to take the fort and then move on to 3 smaller “backup” forts, gather up the guns there, and eventually make their way east to City Point where they would hopefully gather up high-level prisoners, including Grant himself.

The attack began in the dark at 4 am on March 25, 1865 with the Confederate forces wearing white strips of linen so that they could be identified by their fellow soldiers.  The surprise attack worked, and they took the fort fairly easily before dawn.  But as the morning light increased, they realized something.  There were no other forts.  Boxed in by heavy fire and forced to retreat and then surrender, the Confederate army suffered some of its highest casualties – an estimated 4,800, or one-sixth of Lee’s command.

There were a couple more battles before Lee’s surrender 2 weeks later at Appomattox, but the assault and then loss of Fort Stedman was more than just a symbolic defeat.  It was a devastating last grasp at the close of a bloody, 4-year struggle.

Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3 Red River to Appomattox

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Confederate Cabinet

On March 11, 1861, the Confederate States of America unanimously (sort of) adopted a Permanent Constitution.  Rather than starting from scratch, they used the U.S. Constitution as a model and went line-by-line inserting the changes they wanted to make in their new country.  Let’s take a look at the interesting ones:

After some in-fighting (which was not a rarity), they maintained the prohibition on slave trade from foreign countries.  Rather than being seen as something progressive, they likely kept this provision because they had all the slaves they needed and importing more would only devalue what they considered their current property.  They also, not surprisingly, strengthened the fugitive slave law.

They eliminated the provision that members of Congress could not serve in the Cabinet.  It was thought that this would give the President a voice in arguing for his own legislation and, conversely, help the other legislators understand his point of view on different matters.

A few differences centered on money.  There was to be no protective tariff.  And all appropriations had to originate with the president, although they eventually conceded that Congress could raise money for navigation issues.  Having the president authorize all appropriations would eliminate any pork-barrel legislation from congressmen – already seen as a problem 140+ years ago.  Also, to further this end, the president would have line-item veto power on all appropriations bills.

The president and vice-president were limited to one six-year term, although they could run again after a six-year break.

And to make what they knew to be a hastily-prepared, contentious constitution more malleable, they made it so that only three states (already then a minority) could call for a convention to vote on a new amendment, and they changed the votes necessary to pass an amendment from three-fourths to just two-thirds.

Some interesting items that were in the initial provisional constitution but were eventually rejected included:

They reserved the right to restrict trade with any slave state not a member of the Confederacy; eligibility for president entailed being a citizen of one of the original states, thus diminishing the effect of the border states even if they were to join; the Supreme Court would only sit to hear cases when requested by Congress; and a provision that any state that abolished slavery could be expelled from the Confederacy.

Recommended reading: Look Away!: A History of the Confederate States of America

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Ironclads

When I was around 10 or 11, I found a reproduction print called “Battle of the Ironclads” in a discount store called Hammer’s and convinced my mom I needed it.  There was something about the funny-looking ships that I just loved and I remember thinking that this was “real adult history,” and I needed to learn more.  It, of course, immediately got put in some stack of other things I “needed” as a kid.  I’d run across it every 2 or 3 years, and even as a old, wise teenager, I’d stare at the explosions of what I knew as the Monitor and Merrimac and remember that first glimpse of what real history looked like.

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) went out for her first trial run – and immediately sank two ships.  Its 4 inches of armor more than made up for its lack of mobility.  And if it couldn’t get its 10 guns into position, there was always the four foot long ram on the front.  After sinking the first 2 ships on the 8th, three more suddenly-outdated wood ships – run aground and virtually helpless- awaited the Virginia on the next day.  

Months earlier when the Confederates were changing history and turning the former USS Merrimack into an unstoppable weapon, rumors of the plans reached New York, and a decision was made to build their own ironclad from scratch.  The USS Monitor turned out have fewer guns – just two – but they were mounted on a rotating turret, so navigation of the ship was not as important.  But just in case, the Monitor sat higher in the water making it faster and more maneuvrable than its nemesis, and it also had thicker plating – up to 9 inches in its most critical areas.

Now to March 9th…  As the Virginia set out to continue the work of the day before, it set its sights first on the USS Minnesota.  But unknown to the Rebels, the Monitor had appeared in the middle of the night and lay waiting.  To the soldiers on board the Virginia, this strange-looking ship appeared as if “dropped from the sky.”  In fact, some of them weren’t even sure it was a ship.

“We thought at first it was a raft on which one of the Minnesota’s boilers was being taken to shore for repairs, and when suddenly a shot was fired from her turret we imagined an accidental explosion of some kind had taken place on the raft.”

It didn’t take much longer for them to figure out what that oddly-shaped thing was, and the battle began.  Neither ship could do much damage with their guns at first, and the Virginia was unable to take a shot with its ram since the Monitor was so nimble.  But enough damage was done to each ship eventually that they both retired, and officially the battle must go down as a draw.  But it was a history-making fight that literally changed the way naval battles were fought.

Interestingly, while both ships eventually met their demise, neither was lost in a battle.  The Monitor, while nimble, was not very good in high, open waters and sank in a storm at the end of ’62.  The Virginia did not even make it that long.  After Union troops captured her home base of Norfolk, she was purposely blown up to keep her out of enemy hands.

Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1

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March 4th was Inauguration Day in the U.S. until 1933 when the Twentieth Amendment relocated it to January. 

As luck would have it, yesterday I finished reading Douglas Wilson’s prize-winning Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. It’s a magnificent book that shows Lincoln’s grasp of words and writing and how he used them to convey big ideas to the general public. With his eloquence and metaphors disguised as “plain talk,” he solidified support for his policies and also won over a few opponents. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his Second Inaugural Address

The speech, pictured above, was delivered on March 4, 1865 – just days before the Civil War ended.  The Union’s victory was assured, so everyone gathered to hear a speech that would, at the very least, congratulate the North on its victory and reaffirm the belief that God was indeed on their side.  But Lincoln, who was nothing if not unpredictable, instead suggested that the North was complicit in this judgment from above.

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.

And instead of gloating that his restoration of the country – without slavery – had been successful, he looked ahead to reconciliation and being united again.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

It’s no wonder that he expected it to “wear as well as – perhaps better than – anything I have produced.” 

Recommended reading: Lincoln’s Greatest Speech?

UPDATE: (3/5) A more rigorous discussion of the speech is found at The Edge of the American West.  A fight even breaks out in the comments!

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