Welcome to the Civil War 150 Community! This sections includes monthly posts to the Scholar's Blog by editors of The Library of America volumes focusing on significant events in Civil War history. Also posted monthly is the Document of the Month, drawn from The Civil War Told by Those Who Lived It. Viewers are encouraged to post comments on the material and to revisit the site as new content will be added regularly.

“Document of the Month” - June 2014

Posted on September 12, 2014

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“Document of the Month” - May 2014

Posted on September 12, 2014

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“Document of the Month” - April 2014

Posted on September 12, 2014

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“Document of the Month” - March 2014

Posted on April 1, 2014

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on April 1, 2014


On March 8, 1864, Ulysses S. Grant and his eldest son, Fred, arrived at Washington, DC. It was the general’s first visit to Washington since 1852, when he had been a young officer. What happened next is fairly well known. The front desk clerk at Willard’s Hotel did not recognize his distinguished guest and assigned him a small room before realizing that the hero of Vicksburg and Chattanooga was standing before him. After struggling to eat a meal at the hotel restaurant as excited onlookers buzzed around him, Grant made his way over to the weekly White House reception. Onlookers made way for the general: Abraham Lincoln greeted him warmly, and William H. Seward led him to the East Room, where he stood on a sofa to avoid being crushed by a mob of well-wishers.

This went on for an hour, whereupon Seward led Grant to the Blue Room. There Lincoln briefed him on what would happen the next day when the president would present him with his commission as lieutenant general. Perhaps, Lincoln hinted, Grant could say something that would alleviate any jealousy among his fellow generals and compliment the long-struggling Army of the Potomac. At the ceremony the next afternoon, a somewhat nervous Grant accepted the commission without complying with Lincoln’s request; the following day he hurried down to visit the Army of the Potomac and its commander, George G. Meade, in Virginia.[1]

The previous August, Grant had expressed relief that he had avoided replacing Meade in the wake of dissatisfaction that Meade had not crushed Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia after Gettysburg. He confided that “it would cause me more sadness than satisfaction” to assume that command. “Here I know the officers and men and what each Gen. is capable of as a separate commander,” he told Charles A. Dana. “There I would have all to learn. Here I know the geography of the country, and its resources. There it would be a new study.” Besides, he knew that the officers and men of the Army of the Potomac would resent having an outsider take charge. But becoming general-in-chief of the armies of the United States was different. Grant thought he could direct operations while staying in the West, leaving someone else to run matters in the East. Indeed, his predecessor as commanding general, Henry W. Halleck, had rather bluntly dismissed Grant’s thoughts on how to wage operations in the eastern theater after having sought his input.[2]

Grant preferred to stay away from Washington as much as possible. He knew that Lincoln had a reputation for meddling in military affairs; he was aware that he had not always been the president’s favorite general, and had taken pains to let Lincoln know through third parties that he harbored no presidential ambitions. As 1864 was an election year, this was no minor matter. Nor did he care for the poisonous atmosphere of Washington politics. Neither did his good friend and subordinate, William T. Sherman. “For God’s sake and for your country’s sake, come out of Washington!” he beseeched. Nothing good happened there. It would be in the western theater where victory would be won.

Sherman had no doubt that Grant would win in the end. He marveled at his friend’s “simple faith in success . . . which I can liken to nothing else than the faith a Christian has in his Saviour.” Grant, he said, went into battle “without hesitation, . . . no doubts, no reserve; and I tell you that it was this that made us act with confidence. . . . My only points of doubt were as to your knowledge of grand strategy, and of books of science and history; but I confess your common-sense seems to have supplied all this.”[3]

It would be Grant’s common sense, however, that soon led him to decide that his place would be in the eastern theater. Impressed by Meade’s willingness to step aside and allow Grant to pick his own man to head the Army of the Potomac, Grant decided to retain Meade where he was, in part because he (and not Grant) knew that army well. Learning that Meade even then was fending off a congressional investigation into his performance during the Gettysburg campaign, Grant also realized that the only way to shield the armies in the East from political meddling was for him to stay there . . . just not in the capital itself. When, on returning to Washington, Lincoln sought to have his new commanding general make the social rounds, Grant put an end to such notions, declaring: “Really, Mr. President, I have had enough of this show business.”[4]

This statement may have come as a surprise to the president, whose previous experience suggested that certain generals could never get enough of “this show business.” Before long, however, Lincoln realized that something else rendered Grant distinctive. “Wherever he is, things move,” he told William O. Stoddard, one of his private secretaries. Moreover, unlike several of his predecessors, Grant “doesn’t ask me to do impossibilities for him, and he’s the first general I’ve had who didn’t.”[5]

Before long Grant set forth what would happen. He would come east, with Sherman replacing him in the West. When spring came and the roads dried, all of the armies would be set in motion, placing continuous pressure on the Confederates. It all boiled down to a simple concept, as Sherman later recalled: “He was to go for Lee and I was to go for Joe Johnston.”[6]

In the year to come there would be much blood shed and some dark moments. There would also be stirring triumphs and hundred-gun salutes. And, finally, there was this: thirteen months to the day that Grant shook Lincoln’s hand upon accepting his commission, he shook Robert E. Lee’s hand as he accepted the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia.

[1] Bruce Catton, Grant Takes Command (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), 124–28.

[2] Ulysses S. Grant to Charles A. Dana, August 5, 1863, in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, John Y. Simon, ed., vol. 9 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 146; Brooks D. Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822–1865 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 250–52; Catton, Grant Takes Command, 7.                                   

[3] William T. Sherman to Ulysses S. Grant, March 10, 1864, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 735–36.

[4] Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant, 263.

[5] Catton, Grant Takes Command, 176–77.

[6] Simpson, Ulysses S. Grant, 265.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.


“Document of the Month” - February 2014

Posted on April 1, 2014

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“Document of the Month” - January 2014

Posted on April 1, 2014

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on April 1, 2014


As 1864 began, both northerners and southerners believed that the coming year would prove decisive in the ongoing conflict. Although the Confederates had suffered several serious setbacks in 1863, they were far from finished. If they could just fend off and frustrate the Yankees in 1864, enough voters in the North might grow weary of the seemingly endless bloodshed and vote Abraham Lincoln out of the White House, paving the way for a negotiated settlement that would recognize southern independence. But how best to realize that goal?

Major General Patrick R. Cleburne, a hard-fighting division commander in the Army of Tennessee, thought he had the answer. An Irishman from County Cork who had settled in Arkansas in 1850, Cleburne was committed to winning Confederate independence, but by the end of 1863 even he wondered whether the future promised success. Despite having “spilled much of our best blood” and spending “an amount of property equal in value to the specie currency of the world,” after three years of fighting the Confederates had nevertheless found that “the fruits of our struggles and sacrifices have invariably slipped away from us and left us nothing but long lists of dead and mangled.” Exhausted soldiers were “sinking into a fatal apathy, growing weary of hardships and slaughters which promise no results.” Lacking sufficient manpower and resources, the Confederacy seemed doomed. Moreover, slavery, “one of our chief sources of strength at the commencement of the war,” had become “in a military point of view, one of our chief sources of weakness.”[1]

Cleburne believed he knew how to remedy these shortcomings. So long as his fellow Confederates were willing to sacrifice everything to secure independence, all was not lost. As 1863 came to an end he committed his thoughts to paper, confided in officers who had fought under him, and then presented his ideas to a meeting of his fellow generals in the Army of Tennessee held at Dalton, Georgia, on January 2, 1864.

In Cleburne’s view, slavery explained much about the current military situation: “it is our most vulnerable point, a continued embarrassment, and in some respects an insidious weakness.” Slavery antagonized European powers that opposed the peculiar institution, while the slaves themselves offered Union arms a source of strength that unnerved white southerners. It was time to turn the tide by enlisting slaves to serve as Confederate soldiers, and to “guarantee freedom within a reasonable time to every slave in the South who shall remain true to the Confederacy in this war.” It was time for every Confederate to “give up the negro slave rather than be a slave himself,” which would be the fate all Confederates would suffer should the Yankees prevail.[2] Freeing and arming the slaves would make Great Britain and France look more kindly upon the cause of southern independence; blacks would no longer need to join the Union army to fight for their freedom; southerners white and black would join together to defend their homeland with renewed commitment; and Confederate armies, their ranks swelled by these new recruits, would sweep to victory.

Cleburne’s address shocked many of the generals present at the Dalton meeting. After all, Confederate authorities had rejected offers to serve made by free creoles in Louisiana and Alabama in 1861. Although slaves were employed (and impressed) to support Confederate military operations, they were used as cooks, teamsters, laborers, and servants, while Confederate authorities strove to identify and remove the handful of black men (usually individuals of mixed racial heritage) who sought to serve as soldiers. Moreover, Cleburne had justified ending slavery upon the grounds of military necessity, the same grounds that none other than Abraham Lincoln had cited as the basis for his Emancipation Proclamation. While corps commanders William J. Hardee and Thomas Hindman expressed interest in Cleburne’s proposal, other generals were outraged. Patton Anderson declared that the mere idea was “revolting to Southern sentiment, Southern pride, and Southern honor,” while William B. Bate asserted that adopting an emancipatory policy promised “to discard our recieved theory of government, destroy our legal institutions and social relations.”[3] General Joseph E. Johnston, the commander of the Army of Tennessee, preferred that nothing more be said about the subject, but a copy of Cleburne’s address made its way to Richmond, where Jefferson Davis quickly rejected any notion of arming the slaves and ordered the suppression of all discussion about the proposal.

Cleburne would fight stubbornly throughout 1864 before being killed in the Battle of Franklin on November 30. By that time, in the aftermath of the fall of Atlanta and Lincoln’s reelection, there was renewed southern interest in the possibility of enlisting enslaved blacks as soldiers, with some Confederates (notably Robert E. Lee) adding that enlistment should be accompanied by emancipation. Critics maintained that the quest for southern independence meant nothing if one did away with the basic reason white southerners sought that independence: to protect slavery. On March 8, 1865, the Confederate Congress approved enlisting slaves under certain conditions, but by then it was too late: at best a few hundred black recruits were undergoing training in Richmond just before that city fell to the Yankees in April 1865.  

[1] Patrick R. Cleburne, Memorandum on Emancipation and Enlisting Black Soldiers, January 2, 1864, Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 678–679.

[2] Ibid., 680–681.

[3] Bruce Levine, Confederate Emancipation: Southern Plans to Free and Arm Slaves during the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 28, 40.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.

“Document of the Month” - December 2013

Posted on April 1, 2014

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on November 21, 2013


On the afternoon of November 25, 1863, Ulysses S. Grant stood on Orchard Knob east of Chattanooga, Tennessee, and pondered what to do next. It was just over a month since he had arrived at the town where the Army of the Cumberland, in the aftermath of its defeat at Chickamauga on September 20, found itself besieged by the victorious Army of Tennessee under the command of Braxton Bragg. Grant’s job was to break the siege and defeat the enemy.

It was a daunting task. The Confederates looked down upon their beaten foe from defensive positions along Missionary Ridge and Lookout Mountain. The Rebels had also moved westward along the Tennessee River to sever the Yankee supply line, leaving the Army of the Cumberland in a perilous situation. The Lincoln administration labored to relieve the beleaguered army, dispatching two corps from the Army of the Potomac in Virginia and one from Grant’s Army of the Tennessee in Mississippi to do what they could to pry open the Confederate grip on Chattanooga. Having lost faith in the ability of William S. Rosecrans, the Army of the Cumberland’s commander, to salvage the situation, President Lincoln turned to the victor of Vicksburg to save the day. Elevated in mid-October to a command that spanned the area from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River valley, Grant took advantage of an option provided in his orders to replace Rosecrans with George H. Thomas, who promised Grant that he would hold Chattanooga until his men starved.

By the time Grant arrived at Chattanooga on October 23, the Union forces were ready to take action. Rosecrans and his chief engineer, William F. Smith, had already framed a plan to reopen a supply line along the Tennessee River. Grant ordered that it be implemented. Meanwhile, he hurried forward William T. Sherman’s troops from the Army of the Tennessee, intending to entrust the key blow of the upcoming battle to Sherman instead of Thomas or Joseph Hooker, who had come westward with the Potomac soldiers. It was not until November 23 that Grant could set his plan in motion. That day Thomas undertook a reconnaissance in force that easily captured Orchard Knob. The result was more than Grant expected. Still, one observer noted that he was “well pleased at what had been accomplished. He seems perfectly cool, and one could be with him for hours, and not know that any great movements were going on. Its a mere matter of business with him.”[1]

That night there was a near total eclipse of the moon. Major James A. Connelly of the 123rd Illinois Infantry noted that “it was ominous of defeat, but not for us; we concluded that it meant Bragg because he was perched on the mountain top, nearest the moon.”[2] As noon came on November 24 “the fiercest and most tremendeous roars of both cannon and musketry” broke out along Lookout Mountain. Hooker’s men scrambled up its slopes, driving the enemy away. That night Union observers could see “Camp fires and flashes of musketry” illuminate the mountain’s slopes: the following morning Grant’s headquarters discovered that Hooker’s men had planted a United States flag at the summit.[3] Meanwhile, Sherman had moved into place opposite Bragg’s right on Missionary Ridge, ready to smash the Confederate flank and drive the Rebels off the ridgeline.

On the morning of November 25 Sherman attacked, only to discover that he had misjudged the terrain in front of him. Patrick Cleburne’s division repelled several Union assaults, and by early afternoon it was clear that Sherman was getting nowhere. On the Union right Hooker’s men found it tough going to make progress against the Confederates, in part because they needed to replace destroyed bridges. At Orchard Knob, Grant, Thomas, and several officers stood in a cold wind  and contemplated what to do next as Confederate shells “whizzed past” every few minutes.[4]

By mid-afternoon Grant knew he had to do something. He directed Thomas to order his four divisions to move forward and capture the Confederate rifle pits at the base of Missionary Ridge, and then await further orders. When the moment was right, he would order them to resume their advance.

It didn’t quite work out that way. After Union artillery commenced shelling the ridge, Thomas’s men “moved forward at the rifle pits of the enemy as if they knew they were going to succeed,” as Smith described it. The Confederates “broke from behind their protection and up the hill, our men following with chear upon chear and the cannon and musketry on top of the hill pouring shot and shell upon them.”[5]

In truth, the advancing Yankees had no choice. Having taken the rifle pits with relative ease, they discovered that they were now vulnerable to deadly fire from the ridge above them. Withdrawal would only expose them to more fire. The only option was to advance without waiting for orders from headquarters. Some commanders thought that the crest of the ridge was the ultimate objective; others thought the advance was to stop at the rifle pits. That confusion no longer mattered. “The line ceased to be a line,” Quartermaster General Montgomery Meigs recalled. “The men gathered towards the points of least difficult ascent” and streamed up toward the crest. Although Confederate artillery fired away, Major Connolly later explained that “they couldn’t even scare us, as they couldn’t depress their guns to reach us, but had to blaze away far over our heads.” As Smith described it, “Regiment after regiment gained the top and planted their colors—most of them gaining it by the many roads that passed from the valley to the top of the ridge.”[6]

That was not how Grant had planned it. Meigs recorded how Grant declared that “it was contrary to orders, it was not his plan—he meant to form the lines and then prepare and launch columns of assault, but, as the men[,] carried away by their enthusiasm had gone so far, he would not order them back.” What had seemed at first akin to suicide had turned into a smashing success.[7]

That evening no one could quite believe what they had seen, although it did not take long for the assault on Missionary Ridge to pass into legend. Bragg’s “beaten and discontented army” was “in full retreat”; Tennessee and Kentucky were now safe from invasion. It was, Meigs decided, “[t]he grandest stroke yet struck for our country. . . . It is unexampled—Another laurel leaf is added to Grant’s Crown.”[8]

Years later the editors of Century Magazine suggested to Grant that Bragg had detached some of his army to attack Knoxville in early November because he thought the Missionary Ridge position was impregnable. With “a shrewd look,” Grant replied: “Well, it was impregnable.”[9]   

[1] William Wrenshall Smith: Journal, November 13–25, 1863, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 576.

[2] James A. Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, December 7, 1863, ibid., 593.

[3] Smith, ibid., 577–578.

[4] Montgomery C. Meigs: Journal, November 23–25, 1863, ibid., 585.

[5] Smith, ibid., 580.

[6] Meigs, ibid., 587; Connolly to Mary Dunn Connolly, November 26, 1863, ibid., 590; Smith, ibid., 580.

[7] Meigs, ibid., 587.

[8] Ibid., 589.

[9] Ulysses S. Grant: Chattanooga, in Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York: Century Co., 1888), 3:693n.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.

“Document of the Month” - November 2013

Posted on October 31, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on October 31, 2013


The summer of 1863 had been a poor one for the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee’s army was not just repulsed from its invasion of Pennsylvania but bloodily beaten at Gettysburg. At the same time, William S. Rosecrans maneuvered Braxton Bragg’s Confederates out of Middle Tennessee at the cost of fewer than six hundred Union casualties. Farther west, Ulysses S. Grant had at last captured Vicksburg, the strongest Confederate citadel of the Mississippi, and delivered complete control of the “Father of Waters” to the Union. Lee safely retreated into Virginia and spent the rest of the year rebuilding his army, aided partly by a controversial offer of amnesty to deserters who returned to their units. The only good news came in September when Bragg, after receiving reinforcements from Mississippi and Virginia, took advantage of Rosecrans’s dispersed positions in northwest Georgia south of Chattanooga. The ensuing battle along Chickamauga Creek on September 19–20 devastated the Union Army of the Cumberland and forced it to retreat back into the city. Bragg initiated a siege, but his senior commanders expressed great frustration that they had not aggressively pursued Rosecrans’s fleeing army and taken Chattanooga. As a result, Jefferson Davis found himself traveling to Georgia in an attempt to contain something close to a generals’ mutiny. When Davis arrived at the headquarters of the Army of Tennessee overlooking Chattanooga on October 9, four of Bragg’s corps commanders called for his replacement. Addressing the army the next day, Davis reminded them that “obedience was the first duty of a soldier” and “prompt, unquestioning obedience” of superiors “could not be too highly commended.” He then confidently predicted that the Army of Tennessee would soon “plant our banners permanently on the banks of the Ohio.”[1]

Davis toured through Alabama, eastern Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas after he restored a semblance of order to the Army of Tennessee. In Wilmington, he celebrated the steadfastness of North Carolina residents, particularly in the “Eastern portion of the state which had suffered the most from the enemy and was perhaps the most loyalty and devoted portion of the whole State.”[2] Davis was undoubtedly thinking of western North Carolina, which some Confederates believed was infected with the same poisonous unionism that defined East Tennessee. Despite Davis’s pronouncements about solidarity between regions, the Mountain South remained suspect throughout the war. But Davis himself overlooked a much more serious problem in eastern North Carolina: the continuing exodus of black families from the region. The Union army had captured New Bern in March 1862 and black residents began fleeing to Union lines almost immediately. In late 1863 Brigadier General Edward Wild recruited a sizeable number of black North Carolinians into his “African Brigade,” which then began raiding tidewater plantations to free more enslaved people and recruit more soldiers for the Union. Davis’s vision of the Confederacy excluded free black people, but they nonetheless represented a increasing threat to the survival of southern independence. 

If Davis ignored the determination of many black North Carolinians to fight for the Union, he confronted head on the problem of white southerners who put their personal welfare ahead of the well-being of the Confederacy. In his speech at Wilmington, Davis condemned “the wealth gathered and heaped up in the spirit of Shylock, in the midst of a bleeding country” that “would go down with a branding and a curse.”[3] As Davis knew, the opportunities for profit in running the Union blockade were substantial, especially in Wilmington, the last open Confederate deep-water port on the Atlantic. Loyal ship captains were supposed to return with cargoes of weapons, ammunition, medicine, shoes, and salt, but few could resist the temptation to stock their holds with luxury goods that sold quickly to still-wealthy members of the southern elite. In urban areas inland shopkeepers often withheld goods from sale until the prices rose. Confederate newspapers labeled such practices “extortion” and condemned merchants as public enemies, but no easy solution presented itself. What was the appropriate profit to make in a time of war? Shopkeepers had to pay their rent and feed their families like anyone else. Nonetheless, they became ready scapegoats for a Confederate government that needed targets for the mounting public anger over the toll, duration, and experience of the war. Military reverses in the summer of 1863 did not guarantee Confederate defeat in the war, but they did increase pressure on the Davis administration to ensure that sacrifices were borne equally, and that such sacrifices would ultimately produce victory.

[1] Jefferson Davis: Speech at Missionary Ridge, October 10, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 547.

[2] Jefferson Davis: Speech at Wilmington, November 5, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 553.

[3] Ibid., 552.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Fred C. Frey Chair in Southern Studies at Louisiana State University.


“Document of the Month” - October 2013

Posted on October 3, 2013

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“Document of the Month” - September 2013

Posted on September 18, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on September 18, 2013


In June 1863 the Union Army of the Cumberland under William S. Rosecrans commenced a skillful campaign of maneuver. In just over twelve weeks it drove the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Braxton Bragg out of its namesake state and into northern Georgia. Jefferson Davis compelled Robert E. Lee to detach two divisions from the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of James Longstreet and send them to reinforce Bragg in anticipation of a counterstrike.

After several days of skirmishing, on September 18 the Confederates commenced their advance. One Texas soldier, William W. Heartsill, looked forward to giving the Yankees all they could handle. As he lay down for the night seeking warmth in “my old Green army coat,” Heartsill readied “to think and dream of comeing events or of loved ones at home.” It was time to beat back “cruel invaders that come to drench our sunny south in blood and drag us to worse than slavery.” There was only one thing left to do: “Up southrons and strike for God and our native land may the God of the right hover ore our Battle flag and may our independance be dated, from the begining of this pending contest,” a fight that promised to be “one of the most sanguinary and decisive battles of the war.”[1]

Sanguinary certainly describes the battle of Chickamauga, which took place over the next two days. Heartsill’s regiment spent September 19 advancing to the sound of the guns and encountering prisoners and fields covered with dead. The next day it advanced to the front. A cannon ball took the life of brigade commander James Deshler—“It is useless to pass eulogies upon Gen D. for to know him was to love him,” Heartsill remarked—but by that evening the Texas soldier could scribble his recollections of the events of the day by the light of a fire that had just that morning warmed a Yankee’s body.[2] Elsewhere the woods caught fire, consuming the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers.

In two days of battle each side had lost nearly one third of its strength in dead, wounded, and missing. In later years people claimed that Chickamauga meant “river of death,” and the battle seemed to sanctify that understanding. During the second day of fighting, Kentucky soldier John S. Jackman, who served in a Confederate brigade commanded by none other than Ben Hardin Helm, Mary Todd Lincoln’s brother-in-law, crossed the same ground covered by the division to which Heartsill belonged. Jackman was chilled by what he saw: “The dead of both sides were lying thick over the ground. . . . Men and horses were lying so thick over the field, one could hardly walk for them.”[3] Late that morning the Kentuckians advanced, only to be repulsed three times. Helm was mortally wounded, one of some 18,454 casualties in a force some 66,000 strong.

Unfortunately for Heartsill, Jackman, and their fellow Confederates, living, wounded, and dead, Chickamauga was not decisive. Although the Rebels punched right through a gap in the Federal line on September 20, Union corps commander George H. Thomas conducted a gallant defense along Snodgrass Hill, winning the sobriquet “the Rock of Chickamauga.” At first, it appeared that Thomas might have merely staved off the inevitable, for Rosecrans pulled his army back into Chattanooga, Tennessee, only to find himself besieged by the pursuing Bragg. There it looked as if the Yankees might be starved into submission. Once the Confederates dug in and waited, however, their own generals began feuding. Before long Bragg found himself in heated combat, not with the bluecoats, but with his own commanders. President Davis declined to relieve Bragg, instead shuffling a few subordinates and earmarking Longstreet to advance upon Knoxville, Tennessee, defended by a force under the command of the ill-fated Ambrose Burnside.

Abraham Lincoln had his problems with his generals as well. When reports reached Washington claiming that Rosecrans was dispirited and desperate, and might even abandon Chattanooga altogether, the President decided to turn to the only general in the west upon whom he could rely. Orders went out naming Ulysses S. Grant commander of the newly created Military Division of the Mississippi, putting him in charge of operations from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Given the choice to retain Rosecrans or to elevate Thomas to command of the Army of the Cumberland, Grant chose the latter, and wired Thomas to stay where he was. Back came the answer: “I will hold the town until we starve.”[4]

[1] William W. Heartsill: Journal, September 17–28, 1863, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 523.

[2] Ibid., 525.

[3] John S. Jackman: Diary, September 18–20, 1863, ibid., 532.

[4] George H. Thomas to Ulysses S. Grant, October 19, 1863, in The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, volume 9, ed. John Y. Simon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982), 302.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.

“Document of the Month” - August 2013

Posted on August 9, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on June 27, 2013


As the Army of the Potomac moved northward in late June 1863 to counter the Army of Northern Virginia’s invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania, it passed by the battlefields of Manassas. Samuel W. Fiske, a brigade staff officer in the Second Corps, noted that he was “much shocked to find such great numbers of the bodies of Union soldiers lying still unburied” nearly ten months after the battle of the previous August. “Their skeletons, with the tattered and decaying uniforms still hanging upon them, lie in many parts of last year’s battle field, in long ranks, just as they fell; and in one place, under a tree, was a whole circle of the remains of wounded soldiers, who had been evidently left to die under the shade of which they had crawled, some of them with bandages round their skeleton limbs, one with a battered canteen clasped in his skeleton hand, and some with evidence, as our boys fancied, of having starved to death.”[1] Yet, one year after the Seven Days, and with Second Manassas, Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and scores of lesser engagements behind them, men were marching toward battle once again.

The clash of armies at Gettysburg commenced the day after Fiske penned his observations. That afternoon a British observer, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, arrived at the scene of the opening engagements west of the town. Past him streamed wounded from the fighting, “some hobbling alone, others on stretchers carried by the ambulance corps, and others in the ambulance wagons,” in many cases “stripped nearly naked” and displaying “very bad wounds.” Yet these sights “produced no impression whatever upon the advancing troops, who certainly go under fire with the most perfect nonchalance.”[2] That evening Samuel Pickens, an Alabama infantryman who had been in the fighting north of the town, arrived at a field hospital and was horrified at what he saw. “There were the poor wounded men lying all over the yard, moaning & groaning, while in the barn the terrible work of amputating limbs was going on, and the pallid limbs lying around presented a most disagreeable sight.”[3]

The battle was renewed in earnest on the afternoon of July 2 along the Union left. In hours to come places such as the Rose family’s farm and wheatfield, Joseph Sherfy’s peach orchard, an outcropping of rocks known as Devil’s Den, and a rocky hill called Little Round Top would become part of American memory. One Union officer who fought on the Rose farm, Francis Adams Donaldson, saw “vast numbers of dead and wounded” lying on the slopes and base of Little Round Top the next morning: “to make the sight more horrifying, wild hogs were seen feeding on some of the badly torn bodies.”[4] Dead and wounded soldiers were also on the slopes of Cemetery and Culp’s Hill at the other end of the Union line, and even as Donaldson surveyed the terrain in front of him, men were fighting once more at Culp’s Hill.

Early on the afternoon of July 3, the Confederates launched yet another attack, this time on the Union center deployed along Cemetery Ridge. After a fierce cannonade designed to weaken the defenders at the point of attack, about 13,000 men advanced eastward. Awaiting them were Union soldiers, many of them with thoughts of revenge for the slaughter at Fredericksburg in their mind. “We let the regiment in front of us get within 100 feet of us,” recalled Captain Henry Livermore Abbott of the 20th Massachusetts, and “then bowled them over like nine pins, picking out the colors first. In two minutes there were only groups of two or three men running around wildly, like chickens with their heads off.”[5]

So went the story up and down the ridge. Fremantle, riding up minutes after the Confederates had commenced their assault, “soon began to meet many wounded men returning from the front; many of them asked in piteous tones the way to a doctor or an ambulance.” The stream of wounded soon became a river: “Some were walking alone on crutches composed of two rifles, others were supported by men less badly wounded than themselves, and others were carried on stretchers by the ambulance corps.” Fremantle made his way to Confederate general James Longstreet, who supervised the attack, only to learn from the general himself that it had failed.[6]

It rained on July 4. That afternoon the Army of Northern Virginia began retreating from Gettysburg. The Army of the Potomac would soon follow it. Left behind, however, were thousands of wounded and dying men. Arriving at Gettysburg on July 6, nurse Cornelia Hancock toured the field. “There are no words in the English language to express the sufferings I witnessed today,” she wrote to her cousin. “The men lie on the ground; their clothes have been cut off to dress their wounds; they are half naked” and had little to eat. Not all of the wounded were Union soldiers; Hancock encountered “lots” of Confederate wounded “suffering fearfully.” Amputations of arms and legs were the order of the day, and Hancock told her sister that she had become used to watching the surgeons at work: “I feel assured I shall never feel horrified at anything that may happen to me hereafter.”[7]

Even as Hancock wrote, photographers were arriving to capture images of the dead on the battlefield. Within weeks David Wills, a prominent Gettysburg lawyer, would set in motion a proposal to rebury the Union dead on the slopes of Cemetery Hill. Many of the wounded remained at Gettysburg for some time, surviving or dying at an army hospital located to the east of the town. Bodies were buried and reburied, or sent home.

It would be left to a lone figure standing against a November sky to try to make sense of what had happened across the fields of Gettysburg that July. As he helped dedicate the new cemetery that autumn afternoon, he believed that his own words meant little when it came to setting aside the soil before him: “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” Rather, it would be left to the living “to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced … the great task remaining before us” to make sure “that these dead shall not have died in vain.”[8]          

[1] Samuel W. Fiske to the Springfield Republican, June 30, 1863, in Brooks D. Simpson, ed., The Civil War: The Third Year Told By Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2013), 290.

[2] Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Diary, July 1–4, 1863, ibid., 293.

[3] Samuel Pickens, Diary, July 1–3, 1863, ibid., 309.

[4] Francis Adams Donaldson, Narrative of Gettysburg, July 2–3, 1863, ibid., 321.

[5] Henry Livermore Abbott to Josiah Gardner Abbott, July 6, 1863, ibid., 335.

[6]Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Diary, July 1–4, 1863, ibid., 300–01.

[7] Cornelia Hancock to Her Cousin, July 7, 1863, and to Ellen Hancock Child, July 8, 1863, ibid., 341–42.

[8] Abraham Lincoln, Address at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863, ibid., 566–67.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University


“Document of the Month” - July 2013

Posted on June 24, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on June 20, 2013


Clement L. Vallandigham, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, distinguished himself as one of Abraham Lincoln’s most vociferous critics. Although claiming a great love for the Union, he condemned nearly all the measures the administration undertook to save it. Vallandigham opposed conscription, constraints on civil liberties, and most of all, emancipation. In a speech in Congress he compared the draft to the seizure of infants under the pharaohs, warning that “like the destroying angel in Egypt,” the government would “enter every house for the first-born sons of the people.”[1] After being defeated for reelection Vallandigham returned to Ohio, where he declared on May 1, 1863, that “a wicked, cruel, and unnecessary” war was being waged “for the freedom of the blacks and the enslavement of the whites.” For Ambrose Burnside, the commander of the Department of the Ohio, this was too much. On May 5 Burnside’s men arrested Vallandigham at his home in Dayton. He was charged with violating Burnside’s recently issued General Orders No. 38, which prohibited “declaring sympathies for the enemy,” and with making statements “for the purpose of weakening the power of the Government in its efforts to suppress an unlawful rebellion.”[2] In short order, Vallandigham was tried by a military commission, convicted, and sentence to imprisonment for the duration of the war.

In the ensuing controversy even Harper’s Weekly, a staunch supporter of the war and Republican policies generally, opposed Burnside’s action, fearing it would make a martyr out of a man better ignored. The editors had little fear that Vallandigham would materially injure the North. The people have “quite sense enough to withstand any amount of seditious nonsense,” the journal proclaimed.[3] Nonetheless, his arrest alarmed advocates of free speech and civil liberty, including some Republicans. Just as the infamous “gag rule” barring anti-slavery petitions from the US House of Representatives had generated sympathy for abolitionists among northerners otherwise unsympathetic to their radical cause, Vallandigham’s arrest breathed new life into charges that Lincoln was a tyrant more concerned with destroying his political enemies than with defeating the Confederacy.

Although Lincoln privately bemoaned Burnside’s political blunder, he did not free Vallandigham, choosing instead to order his expulsion into Confederate-held territory. In a letter written in response to a public meeting protesting Vallandigham’s arrest, Lincoln defended the suspension of habeas corpus and the use of military trials as the legitimate exercise of powers given to the president in a time of war by the Constitution. In addition to his constitutional arguments, the president stressed the nonpartisan purpose behind Vallandigham’s prosecution. “He was not arrested because he was damaging the political prospects of the Administration,” the president wrote, “but because he was damaging the Army, upon the existence and vigor of which the life of the Nation depends.” Vallandigham’s protests against the war, which seemed to encourage desertion, drew his special scorn. Lincoln reminded his readers of the death penalty for desertion, a punishment that as commander in chief the president was responsible for executing, and then asked: “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?”[4]

No doubt Lincoln longed to do more than touch Vallandigham’s hair, but more important was defusing the political controversy caused by his arrest. After being nominated as the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio, Vallandigham made his way to Canada, where he campaigned from exile. He was defeated in October 1863 by more than 100,000 votes after his anti-war message was undercut by the turn in military fortunes in July, when Union forces gained control of the Mississippi River by capturing Vicksburg and turned back Lee’s second invasion of the North with their victory at Gettysburg.

Nevertheless, Vallandigham’s arrest proved a permanent mark on Lincoln’s record. Critics of the president, then and now, cited it as evidence that Lincoln exercised dictatorial powers, used the pretense of military necessity to target his enemies, and ignored constitutional protections of civil liberties that remain intact in wartime. The dilemma, then as now, revolved around how a democratic government defines loyalty and what sorts of actions can be construed as aiding an enemy in wartime. Are protests against a war treasonous? What about criticisms of military incompetence and corrupt contracting practices? In what terms and how strongly can political opponents denounce executive actions without seeming to abet or sympathize with the enemy? Lincoln sanctioned actions during the war that he knew would be unconstitutional in peacetime but believed to be necessary in order to preserve the Constitution itself. Like other democracies, our nation confronts these questions each time we engage in military action.

[1] Clement L. Vallandigham, Speech in Congress, February 23, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 67.

[2] The Arrest of Vallandigham, Harper’s Weekly, May 30, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 226.

[3] The Arrest of Vallandigham, Harper’s Weekly, May 30, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 227.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Erastus Corning, June 12, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 259–260.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.

“Document of the Month” - June 2013

Posted on May 20, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on May 17, 2013


It had been a long and difficult winter for Ulysses S. Grant. For months his army had struggled in the bayous and swamps around Vicksburg, Mississippi, looking for some way to attack the Confederate citadel that blocked Union control of the Mississippi River. He had come under heavy criticism from many quarters, including some of his own subordinates. One of his corps commanders, the politically connected former congressman John A. McClernand, was busily intriguing to replace him by writing to President Lincoln about his shortcomings. Rumors circulated that Grant was drunk, stupid, or both. Newspaper reporters and editors freely abused him, and the authorities at Washington had dispatched several emissaries whose mission included finding out exactly what was going on in the Army of the Tennessee.

With the coming of spring, however, the roads and the levees began to dry, allowing Grant to make the move he had wanted to undertake since his arrival opposite Vicksburg at the end of January. Once Union gunboats and transports ran past the batteries defending Vicksburg, Grant would move south, cross the Mississippi, and secure a foothold on dry land that would finally allow him to advance against the enemy citadel. He was aware that much depended upon the success of this maneuver. “I am doing my best and am full of hope for complete success,” he wrote to his father. Although he was aware of the criticism directed at him, “I have no idea of being driven to do a desperate or foolish act by the howlings of the press.” If he was to be removed from command, so be it; until then, he would continue to try “to put down the rebellion in the shortest possible time without expecting or desiring any other recognition than a quiet approval of my course.”[1]

The course Grant took over the next month won him more than quiet approval: his campaign against Vicksburg is hailed today as a military masterpiece. Crossing the Mississippi on April 30, the lead elements of Grant’s command defeated a Confederate force at Port Gibson, Mississippi, the following day. As Iowa soldier Taylor Peirce recalled in a letter home, “when the victory was complete you ought to have heard the shout that rung out on the evening air. It was enough to pay us for all our fatigues and dangers.”[2] Two weeks later Grant entered the state capital at Jackson and drove off the Confederate forces gathering there before turning to face John C. Pemberton’s army east of Vicksburg. At Champion Hill on May 16 and Big Black River on May 17 Union forces scored decisive triumphs, driving Pemberton’s men back into the city. After two attempts to take Vicksburg by assault failed, Grant settled down on May 22 to lay siege to the city and its 30,000 defenders.

Within three weeks in May Grant had won five battles. Outnumbered at the outset of the campaign, he had beaten back two Confederate forces as they had attempted to converge on his army and annihilate it. His men lived off the land as they marched through the Mississippi countryside, while a flustered foe flailed away in an effort to sever non-existent supply lines (Grant had wagon convoys move his army’s medical supplies and munitions). Now he had Vicksburg and its defenders by the throat. William T. Sherman, who earlier had expressed his doubts about the operation, greeted his commander warmly as blue-clad soldiers crossed the Big Black River, declaring, “General Grant, I want to congratulate you on the success of your great plan. And it is ‘your plan,’ too, by heaven, and nobody else’s. For nobody else believed in it!”[3]

Back in Washington, Grant received an even more important seal of approval. “Whether Gen. Grant shall or shall not consummate the capture of Vicksburg, his campaign from the beginning of this month up to the twenty second day of it, is one of the most brilliant in the world,” Abraham Lincoln wrote to an Illinois congressman who had been critical of his military appointments.[4] A few weeks later, the President declared that if Grant succeeded in opening the Mississippi, “why, Grant is my man and I am his the rest of the war!”[5]

Little did Lincoln know when he thus spoke that Ulysses S. Grant had entered Vicksburg the previous day, July 4, 1863. Grant had bagged an entire Confederate army for the second time in the war. The President had found his general.

[1] Ulysses S. Grant to Jesse Root Grant, April 21, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 152.

[2] Taylor Peirce to Catharine Peirce, May 4, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 187.

[3] James F. Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1899), 140.

[4] Abraham Lincoln to Isaac N. Arnold, May 26, 1863, in Abraham Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859–1865, ed. Don E. Fehrenbacher (New York: The Library of America, 1989), 449.

[5] James F. Rusling, Men and Things I Saw in Civil War Days (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1899), 17.

Brooks D. Simpson is Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University.

Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on April 30, 2013

April 30, 1863: Hooker Reaches Chancellorsville

The bloody Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, in December 1862 and the aborted “Mud March” along the Rappahannock River the following month demoralized the Army of the Potomac and caused a widespread loss of confidence in its commander, Ambrose Burnside. On January 26, 1863, President Lincoln replaced Burnside with Joseph Hooker, who reorganized the army’s command structure and raised its morale by improving camp conditions, providing better food, and granting furloughs. With 134,000 men under his command, on April 27 Hooker began an offensive designed to drive Robert E. Lee out of his defensive positions along the Rappahannock and force him either to retreat or fight on open ground. While one wing of his army prepared to cross the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, Hooker sent the other wing upriver to turn Lee’s left flank. By April 30 Hooker’s flanking force had crossed the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers and reached Chancellorsville, a crossroads clearing ten miles west of Fredericksburg in the midst of an area of scrub woods and dense undergrowth known as the Wilderness. Captain Charles F. Morse, a staff officer with the Twelfth Corps, recalled that when Hooker reached Chancellorsville that evening, the Union commander said “in the most extravagant, vehement terms” that “he had got the rebels, how he was going to crush them, annihilate them, etc.”[1]

Surprised by Hooker’s adroit movement, Lee nonetheless responded audaciously by dividing his already outnumbered army of 60,000 men. Leaving 10,000 troops to defend Fredericksburg against the Union forces that had crossed the Rappahannock just below the city, he sent Thomas J. (Stonewall) Jackson and the remainder of his men to oppose the Union forces advancing from the west. On May 1 the two sides fought at the edge of the Wilderness, three miles east of Chancellorsville. When Hooker withdrew his men to defensive positions around the Chancellorsville clearing, Lee and Jackson decided to again divide their forces and seize the initiative. While Lee kept 14,000 men to face the 70,000 Union troops at Chancellorsville, Jackson marched 33,000 men twelve miles through the Wilderness on May 2 and struck at Hooker’s exposed right flank. “We loaded & started in run yelling & soon saw the blue rascals running like turkeys & our men—shooting, cheering, & pursuing as fast as they could,” wrote Alabama infantryman Samuel Pickens. “When Yanks got behind hill or breastwk they would stop & shoot & minute or two—but as our men would come charging upon them they’d be off again.”[2] Jackson’s men drove the Union right wing back toward Chancellorsville until night fell. Seeking to continue his offensive, Jackson rode forward in the darkness and was accidentally shot by his own men.

On the morning of May 3 Lee attacked the Union forces around the Chancellorsville clearing. “The rebels came up to the attack in solid masses and got within three hundred yards, but they were slaughtered by the hundreds by the case-shot and canister, and were driven back to the woods,” Morse wrote.[3] Union Captain Samuel W. Fiske was taken prisoner in the dense undergrowth. As Fiske and his guard made their way toward the Confederate rear, they had to step “among mangled corpses of friend and foe, past men without limbs and limbs without men.”[4] After several hours of intense fighting Hooker withdrew to a new defensive position closer to the Rappahannock as Lee learned that Union troops under John Sedgwick had captured Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg and were advancing on Chancellorsville.

Leaving about 20,000 men to face Hooker, Lee attacked Sedgwick on May 4 at Salem Church, four miles west of Fredericksburg. After an inconclusive battle, Sedgwick withdrew across the Rappahannock on the night of May 4. Hooker retreated across the river the following night, ending a campaign in which the Union lost about 17,000 men killed, wounded, or missing, and the Confederates about 13,000. Among the dead was Stonewall Jackson, who died from his wounds on May 10. On her North Carolina plantation Catherine Edmondston mourned “the nation’s idol,” who had died in “the brightness of his glory, a Christian patriot, unselfish, untiring, with no thought but for his country, no aim but for her advancement.”[5]

Many in the Army of the Potomac believed that the campaign had shown Hooker to be without “the qualities necessary for a general.”[6] Nevertheless, Hooker’s failure did not markedly change the strategic situation. Despite Lee’s triumph, the Army of the Potomac was still encamped on the northern bank of the Rappahannock, only sixty miles from Richmond. Lee’s desire to drive it away from the Confederate capital, and his renewed confidence in the Army of Northern Virginia, would soon cause him to look north toward Pennsylvania.

[1]Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 196.

[2]Samuel Pickens, Diary, May 1–3, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 175.

[3]Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 200.

[4]Samuel W. Fiske to the Springfield Republican, May 9, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 206–207.

[5]Catherine Edmondston: Diary, May 5–7, 9, and 10–11, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 194.

[6]Charles F. Morse to His Family, May 7, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 203.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.

“Document of the Month” - May 2013

Posted on April 29, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on March 28, 2013

March 31, 1863: Halleck Instructs Grant

On March 31, 1863, Henry W. Halleck wrote an “unofficial letter” to Ulysses S. Grant “as a personal friend and as a matter of friendly advice.”[1] As is often the case in communications between a superior and his subordinate—Halleck was general-in-chief of the Union army, Grant the commander of the Army of Tennessee—the “friendly advice” concerned serious matters: the policy of the Lincoln administration toward slavery and emancipation, the obligation of military officers to faithfully execute government policy, and the essential nature of the war against the Confederacy.

From the beginning of the conflict slaves had sought freedom by seeking refuge with the Union army. In May 1861 General Benjamin F. Butler made the ad hoc decision to shelter fugitives who fled to Union lines from their work on Confederate fortifications. His actions received legislative endorsement in August of that year when Congress passed a confiscation act emancipating slaves being used to militarily aid the rebellion. But the confiscation act provided no guidance as to how the army should treat fugitives from the border states, or escaped slaves from the seceded states whose owners professed loyalty to the Union. In March 1862, Congress adopted a new article of war prohibiting military and naval officers from returning fugitives.

Left unresolved was the question of whether the army should actively encourage slaves to come within its lines, or to what extent the Union should embrace emancipation as a means of war. Many conservative officers abhorred the notion of waging war against slavery. In a letter he presented to President Lincoln on July 8, 1862, George B. McClellan, the commander of the Army of the Potomac, insisted that “the forcible abolition of slavery” should not “be contemplated for a moment,” and warned that any “declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present Armies.” The war, McClellan wrote, “should not be, at all, a War upon population; but against armed forces and political organizations.”[2] When Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, McClellan described it as “inaugurating servile war” in a letter to a prominent New York Democrat.[3]

Halleck, unlike McClellan, accepted the necessity of emancipation as a war measure, and wanted to make sure that Grant accepted it as well. Believing that his army could neither provide for nor safely transport black refugees, Grant had issued orders on February 12, 1863, prohibiting them from coming into the Union camps along the Mississippi near Vicksburg. In his “unofficial letter,” Halleck bluntly expressed what the administration now expected: “It is the policy of the Government to withdraw from the enemy as much productive labor as possible. So long as the rebels retain and employ their slaves in producing grains, &c., they can employ all the whites in the field. Every slave withdrawn from the enemy is equivalent to a white man put hors de combat.” Grant was to “withdraw from the use of the enemy all the slaves you can,” and to employ them as laborers, teamsters, cooks, and, “as far as practicable,” as soldiers.[4] It was Grant’s responsibility to see that administration policy was carried out, irrespective of the personal opinions of the officers under his command, and to appreciate the urgent nature of the struggle they were now engaged in:

The character of the war has very much changed within the last year. There is now no possible hope of reconciliation with the rebels. The Union party in the South is virtually destroyed. There can be no peace but that which is forced by the sword. We must conquer the rebels or be conquered by them. The North must conquer the slave oligarchy or become slaves themselves—the manufacturers mere “hewers of wood and drawers of water” to Southern aristocrats.[5]

Grant complied with Halleck’s directives, reversing his earlier instructions excluding fugitives from the army lines and energetically assisting Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas in his efforts to recruit black troops in the Mississippi Valley. Unlike McClellan, Grant increasingly understood that the Confederacy could not be defeated by a war waged purely “against armed forces and political organizations,” but only by a war aimed at the foundations of southern society.

[1] Henry W. Halleck to Ulysses S. Grant, March 31, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 107.

[1] George B. McClellan to Abraham Lincoln, July 7, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: The Library of America, 2012), 307–308.

[3] George B. McClellan to William H. Aspinwall, September 26, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: The Library of America, 2012), 540.

[4] Henry W. Halleck to Ulysses S. Grant, March 31, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 105–106.

[5] Ibid., 106. 

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.

“Document of the Month” - April 2013

Posted on March 26, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on February 20, 2013

February 23, 1863: Vallandigham Denounces the Draft

What is the proper way for Americans to express political opposition to an ongoing war? How can the party out of power maintain its own identity without appearing disloyal? Can party members oppose the conflict itself and still proclaim themselves patriots? These questions pressed themselves on the Federalists during the War of 1812 and the Whigs during the US–Mexican War and have recurred in recent years, but they took on a special urgency for northern Democrats during the Civil War. (Because a political party system never emerged in the Confederacy, opposition to the war in the South developed differently than in the North.) By the fall of 1862 the party had divided into “War” and “Peace” factions. While some War Democrats accepted the necessity of attacking slavery, most remained steadfastly opposed to emancipation and hoped that military success would result in the restoration of the Union “as it was.” The Peace Democrats went further, declaring the war to be a failure and asserting that the Union could be saved only through negotiations with the seceded states. In the aftermath of the Union’s bloody humiliation at Fredericksburg, the Peace Democrats were emboldened to call for an armistice with the Confederacy while they used the Emancipation Proclamation to incite fears in the North about the supposed social, political, and economic threat posed by free blacks.

Just as Democrats condemned Lincoln as a tyrant who violated the Constitution in order to elevate blacks above whites, Republicans excoriated antiwar Democrats, calling them “Copperheads,” venomous snakes that strike without warning. In early 1863 George Templeton Strong, the treasurer of the US Sanitary Commission, lamented the “way the Dirt-Eaters and Copperheads and sympathizers and compromisers are coming out on the surface of society, like ugly petechiæ and vibices, shows that the nation is suffering from a most putrescent state of the national blood.”[1] In response to this diagnosis, some Republicans proposed a radical cure: Isaac Funk, a member of the Illinois senate, urged that “these traitors on this floor should be provided with hempen collars. They deserve them. They deserve hanging, I say, the country would be the better of swinging them up.”[2] This sentiment was echoed by soldiers who watched the off-year elections for state offices and read Democratic newspapers with increasing dismay and anger. In Pennsylvania the chief justice of the state supreme court, George W. Woodward, denounced emancipation and ruled conscription unconstitutional. A Pennsylvania officer wrote home to warn the Copperheads that if they “inaugurate rebellion in the North, they will find a mighty army of patriots ready to crush them to the earth. Mark that!”[3]

The draft, as much as emancipation, inspired the ire of antiwar activists. They regarded the resort to conscription, never used in previous American wars, as evidence that Lincoln had lost popular support. Conscription conjured up images of European tyrants who used impressment to build standing armies that oppressed their own citizens. The most vociferous opponent of the draft was Ohio congressman (and future gubernatorial candidate) Clement L. Vallandigham. In a widely quoted speech in February 1863, Vallandigham argued that the draft was nothing more than “a bill to abrogate the Constitution, the repeal all existing laws, to destroy all rights, to strike down the judiciary, and erect upon the ruins of civil and political liberty a stupendous superstructure of despotism.” And all, in Vallandigham’s view, “to secure freedom to the black man.”[4]

Vallandigham lost his bid for governor and eventually disappeared from view, but his excesses tarred Democrats with a stain they could not erase. Many Democrats supported the conflict—including Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin M. Stanton—and condemned the rhetoric of the antiwar wing, but Republican charges of treason weakened the party over time. For years after the war, Republicans continued to “wave the bloody shirt,” reminding northern voters of the sacrifices soldiers had made to save the Union despite the disloyalty of Democrats. From 1860 to 1932, only two Democrats—Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson—were elected to the presidency, a stunningly rapid and enduring fall from grace for what had been the dominant party throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. Not all the Democrats’ postbellum electoral misfortunes can be blamed on the Copperheads, but the party’s failures in the Civil War revealed the perils that still await political dissenters in wartime.

[1] George Templeton Strong: Diary, February 3–5, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 26.

[2] Isaac Funk: Speech in the Illinois State Senate, February 14, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 41.

[3] George Fisher McFarland to the Warren Mail, April 11, 1863, quoted in Timothy Orr, “‘A Viler Enemy in Our Rear’: Pennsylvania Soldiers Confront the North’s Antiwar Movement,” in The View from the Ground: Experiences of Civil War Soldiers, ed. Aaron Sheehan-Dean (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1997), 180.

[4] Clement L. Vallandigham: Speech in Congress, February 23, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 63.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.

“Document of the Month” - February 2013

Posted on January 28, 2013

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on January 16, 2013

January 20, 1863: “Mud March” of the Army of the Potomac

After its bloody defeat in December 1862 the Army of the Potomac settled down for the winter around Falmouth, Virginia, on the north bank of the Rappahannock River across from Fredericksburg. Aware that several of his subordinates were actively intriguing for his replacement as the army’s commander, Ambrose Burnside was determined not to sit still for long. He issued orders calling for a march westward, looking to cross the Rappahannock upriver from Fredericksburg and outflank the defensive line held by Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

The movement commenced on the morning of January 20, 1863. That night it began to pour. High winds whipped through the army’s columns and camps, rendering it impossible to set a fire or erect a tent, while the heavy rains continued to fall. “You have no idea of how soon the roads turn from good to bad here in Virginia,” wrote Lieutenant Theodore A. Dodge, the adjutant of the 119th New York Infantry. “A clayey soil is hard and the very best for marching on in favorable weather, but let it rain but an hour and troops and wagons march over the road, and the mud is worse than anyone who has not been in Virginia can conceive of.” Yet the rain did not stop. The mud swallowed wagons and cannon as soldiers struggled to make their way through the quagmire. As Dodge observed, “The horses sank into mud up to their bellies, and it is said down near the river you sometimes have to put sticks under the mules’ necks to prevent their being engulfed in the very slough of despond.”[1]

Burnside called off the movement on January 22, but it took his men several more days to make their way back to their previous encampments. He faced ridicule, scorn, and pity from generals, officers, and soldiers. “I never felt so disappointed & sorry for any one in my life as I did for Burnside,” George G. Meade wrote. “He really seems to have all the elements against him.”[2] Exacerbated by the increasingly mutinous behavior of several outspoken subordinates, Burnside traveled to Washington to meet with Lincoln. He gave the President a choice: either punish the generals opposing his continuance in command or replace him with someone else.

 Lincoln chose the latter course, and in the process rewarded one of Burnside’s most outspoken critics, Joseph Hooker. Months of whispering behind the backs of Burnside and George B. McClellan had paid off for the man they called “Fighting Joe.” But the President was not deaf to the dangers posed by insubordinate commanders. “I have heard, in such way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator,” Lincoln wrote to Hooker. “Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain successes, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”  The President also observed that there was one more thing Hooker might keep in mind. “I much fear that the spirit which you have aided to infuse into the Army, of criticising their Commander, and withholding confidence from him, will now turn upon you,” Lincoln warned. “Neither you, nor Napoleon, if he were alive again, could get any good out of an army, while such a spirit prevails in it.”[3] Less than four months would pass before Hooker would have cause to agree.    

[1] Theodore A. Dodge: Journal, January 21–24, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 5–6.

[2] George G. Meade to Margaret Meade, January 23, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 12.

[3] Abraham Lincoln to Joseph Hooker, January 26, 1863, in The Civil War: The Third Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Brooks D. Simpson (New York: Library of America, 2013), 18–19.

Brooks D. Simpson is Professor of History at Arizona State University.


“Document of the Month” - January 2013

Posted on December 19, 2012

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Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on December 17, 2012

December 17, 1862: Lincoln’s Cabinet Crisis

Less than a week after the disastrous Union defeat at Fredericksburg, Virginia, on December 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln confronted one of the most serious political crises he faced during the war. The debacle fed mounting frustration among Republicans over the administration’s conduct of the war. Led by its Radical members, the Senate Republican caucus tried to force Secretary of State William H. Seward out of the Cabinet. The Radicals accused Seward of opposing vigorous prosecution of the war, exercising undue influence on the President, and overruling other Cabinet members, and blamed him for the administration’s slowness in embracing emancipation. Many of the Radicals hoped his ouster would increase the influence of their favorite in the Cabinet, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase.

Seward had indeed entered the administration in 1861 imagining that he might guide Lincoln, who, he believed, had little sense of how to respond to the great crisis facing the country. But Lincoln’s relative paucity of national experience obscured his considerable political skills. The two men developed a close working relationship in which Lincoln made it plain that he would decide and issue executive branch policies. His reluctance to endorse immediate emancipation came about because of his own astute evaluation of border state politics, and not from Seward’s influence.

A committee of predominantly Radical senators went to the White House on December 18 and shared with the President their concern about Seward’s influence in the administration. Lincoln had little patience for their conspiratorial view of his administration, exclaiming to his friend Orville H. Browning, “Why will men believe a lie, an absurd lie, that could not impose upon a child, and cling to it and repeat it in defiance of all evidence to the contrary.”[1] Nonetheless, Seward resigned in order to avoid becoming a liability to the administration. Lincoln did not accept his resignation but instead convened a meeting with his Cabinet on December 19, without Seward, to ascertain their views about how the Cabinet operated. Despite reservations, most of the Cabinet members agreed with Lincoln’s assessment that he fairly valued their opinions and that the Cabinet sought agreement in its deliberations. The President then called the senators back to the White House, where they were surprised to find themselves in a meeting with the Cabinet (absent Seward). Lincoln explained that, contrary to what the senators had heard, Cabinet members freely debated issues and reached a consensus before policies were announced. Although Chase offered a mild dissent, no other Cabinet member contradicted the President.

Embarrassed by this turn of events, Chase submitted his resignation, precisely the turn of events Lincoln needed in order to maintain the political balance in his Cabinet. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recorded Lincoln’s response when Chase handed him his resignation: “This said he, looking towards me with a triumphal laugh cuts the Gordian knot. An air of satisfaction spread over his countenance such as I have not seen for some time. I can dispose of this subject now he added.”[2] Knowing that he needed the support of both Radical and conservative Republicans, Lincoln refused to accept either resignation, and both Seward and Chase remained in the Cabinet. As the President reportedly told Senator Ira Harris of New York in one of his characteristic rural analogies, “Now I can ride: I have  a pumpkin in each end of my bag.”[3] Lincoln accomplished two important goals in these delicate maneuvers. By managing the disparate personalities and ideologies in his administration he continued to enjoy the counsel of some of the North’s best political minds. The episode also preserved the President’s prerogative to administer his Cabinet and the executive branch as he saw fit. Republicans, Democrats, and border state Unionists in Congress would continue to use their legislative and investigative power to promote their own agendas, but as commander in chief, Lincoln would possess ultimate authority in a time of war.

[1] Orville H. Browning: Diary, December 18, 1862, in The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived It, ed. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Library of America, 2012), 684.

[2] Gideon Welles: Diary, December 19–20, 1862, The Civil War: The Second Year Told by Those Who Lived Ited. Stephen W. Sears (New York: Library of America, 2012), 692.

[3]An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays, ed. Michael Burlingame (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996), 87.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.

“Document of the Month” - December

Posted on November 26, 2012

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Scholar’s Blog - Brooks D. Simpson

Posted on November 6, 2012

November 4, 1862

In the midterm elections of 1862, which concluded on November 4, the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party suffered a serious setback at the polls. Proclaiming “the Constitution as it is and the Union as it was,” Democrats pointed to the promised Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s recent nationwide suspension of the writ of habeas corpus as evidence of the Republicans’ desire to impose a tyrannical dictatorship upon the republic. Nor did the prospects for decisive military victory seem bright: whatever optimism had been expressed in the wake of Antietam, Corinth, and Perryville had faded away as Union armies failed to capitalize on their successes.   

Democrats claimed victory in New York with the election of Horatio Seymour as governor; they also won the governorship of New Jersey and assumed control of state legislatures in New Jersey, Indiana, and Lincoln’s home state of Illinois. The Democrats’ sizeable gains in the House of Representatives, mostly in the lower North from New York to Illinois, reduced the Republican majority to a plurality, although the Republicans would be able to control the new House with the support of Unconditional Unionists from the border states. Fortunately for the administration, the state election calendars in Pennsylvania and Ohio mandated elections in odd-numbered years, while Republican governors Richard Yates of Illinois and Oliver P. Morton of Indiana had been elected in 1860 to four-year terms. And as historian James M. McPherson has pointed out, Republicans still held most of the governorships and a solid majority of state legislatures, allowing the party to eventually pick up five Senate seats as the terms of Democrats elected in 1856–1857 expired and Republican-controlled legislatures chose their replacements.

President Lincoln weathered the electoral defeat as well as could be expected. In responding to a rather harsh note from General Carl Schurz, a leading Republican who claimed, as Lincoln put it, “that we lost the late elections, and the administration is failing, because the war is unsuccessful; and that I must not flatter myself that I am not justly to blame for it,” the President wrote: “I certainly know that if the war fails, the administration fails, and that I will be blamed for it, whether I deserve it or not. And I ought to be blamed, if I could do better. You think I could do better; therefore you blame me already. I think I could not do better; therefore I blame you for blaming me.”

Even as news of the administration’s setback circulated through the newspapers, Lincoln moved decisively in removing George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac on November 5, replacing him with Ambrose Burnside. The change was made just two weeks after the President had replaced Don Carlos Buell with William S. Rosecrans at the head of the Union army in Middle Tennessee. But whether new generals meant an improvement in Union military fortunes, and the political standing of the administration, remained to be seen. 

Brooks D. Simpson is Professor of History at Arizona State University.

“Document of the Month” - November

Posted on October 31, 2012

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Scholar’s Blog - Aaron Sheehan-Dean

Posted on October 2, 2012

October 8, 1862: The Battle of Perryville

Writing in the 1880s, when Americans of all stripes busily commemorated the Civil War, veterans of Perryville decried the lack of attention paid to the battle. “Fourteen hours of fire and smoke, with lead and iron hail,” wrote Captain Marshall Thayer of Michigan’s Second Cavalry, “deserves more than a contemptuous notice.”[1] Thayer’s concern about historical memory echoed a strange silence on the day of the battle. A rare atmospheric phenomenon called an acoustic shadow hovered over the main battleground for much of October 8, leaving the Federal commander, Major General Don Carlos Buell, ignorant of the titanic struggle going on only miles from his headquarters. Buell heard no musket fire at all and what little cannon fire reached his tent suggested a minor duel. Irritated, Buell demanded that whoever was responsible “stop that firing” and then sat down to an early dinner.[2] Buell planned to engage the enemy on October 9, but Braxton Bragg’s Confederates had attacked instead, and the half of Buell’s army that was engaged barely hung on through a day most veterans would describe as their worst in the war.

What Buell missed hearing was a long and violent effort by Bragg’s Army of Mississippi to eliminate the main Union presence in Kentucky. The fighting, according to all concerned, rivaled the worst of the war’s most notoriously bloody battles. Sam Watkins, the famous Confederate memoirist described the gritty tenacity of the fighting:

We were soon in a hand-to-hand fight — every man for himself — using the buts of our guns and bayonets. One side would waver and fall back a few yards, and would rally, when the other side would fall back . . . and yet the battle raged. Such obstinate fighting I never had seen before or since. The guns were discharged so rapidly that it seemed the earth itself was in a volcanic uproar. The iron storm passed through our ranks, mangling and tearing men to pieces. The very air seemed full of stifling smoke and fire, which seemed the very pit of hell, peopled by contending demons.[3]

As Thayer urged, the battle needed to be remembered for more than just its brutality. The central Kentucky bluegrass town of Perryville, about fifty miles southeast of Louisville, was an unlikely spot for a major engagement, but it proved a key moment in the Civil War. In mid-1862, Bragg, along with Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, mounted an offensive through Tennessee and into Kentucky (paralleling Robert E. Lee’s offensive into Maryland at the same time). The high point came on October 4, when Bragg prematurely inaugurated a Confederate governor for Kentucky, a divided state but one with a strong majority of Unionists. Only hours after installing a governor, Bragg abandoned Frankfort, the state capital. Although Bragg’s attack at Perryville nearly destroyed Buell’s army, his own confidence was shaken and his army seriously weakened by the effort. After the battle, Bragg retreated farther, moving all the way back into Tennessee and abandoning Kentucky to the Union. This proved the essential feature of the campaign. As Abraham Lincoln had already noted, “to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game.” Thanks to the tenacity of Buell’s soldiers and a disorganized, poorly led Confederate western command, Union-held Kentucky stayed in the game.

[1] Marshall Thayer, quoted in Kenneth W. Noe, Perryville: This Grand Havoc of Battle (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001), xiv.

[2] Noe, Perryville, 215.

[3] Sam Watkins, “The Battle of Perryville,” in The Civil War: The Second Year of the War Told by Those Who Lived It (New York: Library of America, 2012), 596.

Aaron Sheehan-Dean is the Eberly Family Professor of Civil War History at West Virginia University.

“Document of the Month” - October

Posted on October 2, 2012

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