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This Week in the Civil War
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 11: Lincoln reins in Fremont, battle in Missouri.
President Abraham Lincoln reins in Union Major Gen. John Fremont, who recently declared martial law and also ordered the state's slaves to be emancipated. Lincoln disregards aides who urged that Fremont be sacked. Instead he appoints another general to work alongside Fremont and orders Fremont on Sept. 11 to rescind the order involving slaves of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri. Lincoln's letter, distributed by The Associated Press, notes Fremont insisted the president issue "an open order" modifying his martial law plan, to which Lincoln responds: "I very cheerfully do." The president adds his signature: "Your obedient servant, A. Lincoln." Meanwhile, the northern Virginia countryside is largely quiet despite jitters over Confederate pickets causing some trouble near Washington. "The rebels who moved in force from Fairfax Court-house fell back again, after burning a few houses," an AP dispatch noted of their recent movements. Other dispatches report Union Maj. Gen. George McClellan has barred his own pickets from firing on the enemy unless the Confederates fire first or attack. Lincoln's week includes a much vaunted Washington VIP review of a sharpshooter regiment that is also attended by McCellan, government officials and a "large number of ladies and gentlemen." AP reports: "Something like four hundred shots were fired at a distance of 630 yards" from heavy rifles. But it concludes, "The firing was nothing extraordinary, only one-fourth of the shots hitting the target." More fighting erupts to the west. On Sept 15, 1861, some 20,000 secessionist troops move against a badly outnumbered Union garrison of about 3,000 troops on bluffs commanding the Missouri River at Lexington, Missouri. The Battle of Lexington, one of the two largest in the western campaign, is just opening and will rage for days, well into the coming week.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 18: The Battle of Lexington.
Who would have thought large hemp bales could sway the outcome of a battle? The Battle of Lexington rages on early this week in September 1861. Secessionist forces under Maj. Gen. Sterling Price are fighting madly to seize the pro-southern Missouri River town of Lexington. Strains of "Dixie" waft from a military band as the fighters, their ranks swelled by recruits pouring in from the countryside, bombard some 3,000 Unionists hunkered down on the grounds of a Masonic college at the north end of Lexington. By now, besieged Unionists are running out of water, trapped in their defenses in the late summer heat. On the third day, the siege ends dramatically: Southern fighters take some 130 large hemp bales on Sept. 20, 1861, and line them up opposite the Union breastworks and begin pushing the bales ever closer to the rival side. Unionists pound the moving line of hemp bales with cannons and rifle shot but the bales have been soaked with water and fail to catch fire. Secessionists ' hiding three men behind each bale ' nudge the bales forward in snakelike lines until they are close. They then charge the federal defenders. Hand-to-hand fighting ensues but it's quickly over and the Union forces surrender. About 65 deaths are reported and many dozens wounded. A newspaper dispatch published afterward in the New Hampshire Sentinel lauded the outnumbered federal forces under Col. James A. Mulligan for a brave fight: "Col. Mulligan was at last compelled to yield to a force eight times his own number, after fifty-one hours of fighting, without a drop of water." Missouri's Union commander, Major Gen. John Fremont, will eventually respond to the defeat by mounting a 38,000-strong force that eventually drives Price and his band from the state later in the war. Lexington will eventually return to Union control.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 25: Pressure for a Union plan of attack.
Major Gen. George B. McClellan, tapped to lead the Army of the Potomac after the Union defeat at First Bull Run, comes under growing popular pressure in late September 1861 to attack Confederate forces outside Washington. The commander chafes at strident calls for action, knowing he could be made the scapegoat for any disastrous misstep that turns the tide of war against the Union. Nonetheless, McClellan's weeks of training and drilling have begun to shape green and largely untested troops into a fighting force. And McClellan is still being allowed time by President Abraham Lincoln to plot his war strategy. One of McClellan's chief worries is that he not leave Washington undefended, at times believing the Confederates could be plotting a major assault on the capital. Reports speak of Confederates in northern Virginia nearly within site of Washington. Months later, McCellan will go on to failure with his Peninsula Campaign ' his ambitious thrust toward Richmond from Virginia's seaboard side. Later he will halt Confederate Robert E. Lee's invasion of Maryland at bloody Antietam yet still lose his command for settling for a draw that tests Lincoln's patience as the president thirsts for crushing victory. This month, the South's Gulf Coast farmers recoil from stormy weather that ruins corn and cotton crops needed to feed and clothe the Confederate army. News dispatches speak of bickering in the Confederate congress over ill-fed and badly uniformed recruits. Misinformation flies. One Southern newspaper claims Confederate troops number an astonishing 185,000 men ' far more than McClellan's ' and adds they are "clothed and fed on a scale of amazing liberality, and are regularly paid in gold or bank paper." One commentator scoffs such numbers are impossibly inflated and the situation is the reverse with near "nakedness and starvation" among some Confederate troops.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 2: William Tecumseh Sherman and Robert Anderson.
Robert Anderson was the Union colonel and commander at Fort Sumter, S.C., when a Confederate bombardment in April 1861 opened the Civil War. Afterward, he rose through the command and was promoted to the Army's Department of the Cumberland Valley. But when an ailing Anderson took medical leave, he was succeeded by a new commander, William Tecumseh Sherman, on Oct. 8, 1861. So would Sherman begin a military career that ' despite ups and downs ' would make him one of the most recognized Union commanders after Ulysses Grant. Eventually Sherman would go down in history for a scorched earth campaign that led to the capture and burning of Atlanta in 1864 and the subsequent march by his troops to the sea on a wide path of destruction in the Deep South. This fall marks the start of an outbreak of numerous small skirmishes but no battles of significance. Outside Washington, a federal observatory ballon is lofted near the northern Virginia community of Falls Church, hoping to spy out Confederate pickets. Within days, skirmishing erupts near Falls Church but reports say "the (cannon) balls coming from each side of the delicivity of a hill and a dense woods .. failed their purpose" and Union batteries escaped harm. Further west, rebels who had seized Lexington, Missouri, during a major battle the previous month withdraw as federal forces threaten. "The evacuation of Lexington by the rebels is confirmed," The Associated Press reports in a dispatch published Oct. 4, 1861. It reports "six thousand men left Lexington, crossing the river on Saturday ... they were met by a Federal force ... when a battle ensued" and the federals were driven back. It added: "Many of the rebels swarm the river in their impatience to get across."