This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, April 15, 1862: Lincoln's early emancipation move.
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Compensated Emancipation Act, moving to free thousands of slaves in the nation's capital. This action is an early hint of steps to come that would eventually hasten the end of slavery across the whole U.S. as a result of the conflict. It would be several more months, in September 1862, when he would sign yet another even more famous document _ the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation _ which declared that if the secessionists didn't cease active rebellion and return to the Union by Jan. 1, 1863, all slaves in those states would be free by that deadline. That step would effectively reframe the war as a battle against slavery _ and not just make it a cause of restoring the Union as Lincoln had maintained early in the conflict. Meanwhile, The Associated Press reported in a dispatch dated April 17, 1862, near Yorktown, Va., that Confederate forces have strengthened their defenses and kept up "brisk cannonading" all night near Virginia's James River as Union forces were preparing to mount an offensive toward Richmond from the Virginia coastal region. The report from a camp near Yorktown said federal gunboats "amused themselves by shelling the woods below Gloucester" in Virginia and one of the vessels approached within two miles of Yorktown when Confederates opened fire from a battery concealed in the woods. AP reports the federal gunboats were not damaged and the firing continued afterward for long intervals. AP's dispatch added that other engagements were reported in other spots near the James River as Union Gen. George B. McClellan was mustering forces in the region for a looming spring offensive by the federal fighters intent on seizing Richmond, capital of the Confederacy.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, April 22, 1862: Farragut captures New Orleans.
In this week 150 years ago in the war, U.S. Navy Flag Officer David Farragut takes his Union fleet and runs it past two heavily armed Confederate forts on the lower Mississippi River near the Gulf of Mexico. The daring move leads Farragut onward to capture New Orleans on April 25, 1862, forcing a sullen Southern city to surrender. It's one of the most eventful months of war yet. And Farragut's daring provides the Union a key victory in its thrust to seize the main inland waterway and divide the Confederacy. New Orleans is one of the busiest Southern ports and a supply lifeline for the secessionist states. Farragut's plan involved weeks of sizing up Confederate-held Fort Jackson and Fort St. Philip several miles downriver from New Orleans. His forces spend days pounding the forts with intense fire from mortar boats while crews cut a gap in heavy chains strung across the river. Then, hours before dawn on April 24, 1862, Farragut's fleet begins moving stealthily upriver, racing a gauntlet of raking fire from the forts. The fight is intense, and The Associated Press reports in an April 24 dispatch that there was a "heavy and continuous bombardment of Fort Jackson" before Farragut's move. The Confederates reported to AP that Fort Jackson alone had been targeted by some 25,000 13-inch shells but they vowed the fort was capable of absorbing heavy fire indefinitely. Farragut chose instead to bypass the forts entirely. All told, 13 of Farragut's ships would make it upriver beyond the two forts and continue on to New Orleans to force its surrender. There are more than 1,000 casualties on both sides. And Confederates still holding the forts downriver surrender on April, 28, 1862, when they realize their garrisons are cut off and isolated.
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, April 29: Union march toward Corinth, Virginia skirmish.
In late April of 1862, more than 100,000 Union soldiers under the command of Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck march out from Tennessee for Corinth, Miss., intent on wresting away from Confederate forces that key railroad junction for the South. The journey into northern Mississippi means crossing thick forests and rugged country as many of Halleck's men come down with dysentery and typhoid _ common diseases of that era in the South. The 22-mile route took Halleck's forces weeks to cover as they endured bad weather and as illnesses felled many. By early May of 1862, the Union army would be within 10 miles of Corinth but then Confederate rivals began unleashing sporadic, small-scale attacks. Union forces would repeatedly dig and settle into trenches as they advanced mile by mile _ expecting to eventually approach Corinth. The Confederates, whose soldiers also were falling ill in large numbers, would hang on until late May before stealthily withdrawing and leaving Corinth to Union forces to occupy. Until then, more than 40 miles of earthen trenches and breastworks would be built in the area during the weeks of confrontation. Elsewhere, The Associated Press reported on May 4, 1862, that fighting had erupted near Williamsburg, Va. Union Gen. George B. McClellan now has a formidable fighting force arrayed in coastal Virginia and the combat signals big battles soon to come. AP reports that Union forces probing the Confederate fortifications at Williamsburg fire upon approaching rebel cavalry. It adds Union troops were suddenly "opened upon by a deadly fire from the artillery posted behind the (Confederate) works." When the Confederate cavalry charged, Union forces counterattacked and "in more instances than one it was a hand to hand encounter with the enemy's cavalry."
This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 6: Battle of Williamsburg and aftermath.
The Battle of Williamsburg, Va., is the first major combat of Union Gen. George B. McClellan's Virginia "Peninsula Campaign" Waged May 4-5, 1862, the battle pitted nearly 41,000 Union soldiers against more than 30,000 Confederate forces. Union forces advancing after a Confederate retreat from Yorktown clashed with a Confederate rearguard near Williamsburg, but were nearly pushed back in attacking Confederates hunkered down behind strong earthworks. At one point, the Union force appeared close to being repulsed before arriving reinforcements shore up their position. The fighting raged on before Confederate forces pulled back at the battle's end in a nighttime move. The battle comes as a cautious McClellan, despite tens of thousands of troops, tentatively begins pressing toward Richmond up the peninsula formed by the York and James Rivers. More than 3,800 casualties are estimated at Williamsburg, heavily to the Union side. By May 6, Union forces continue probing toward Richmond, capital of the Confederacy, and a day later there's a smaller fight of a Union division with two Confederate brigades. But several major battles will lay weeks ahead in McClellan's ultimately unsuccessful attempt to take Richmond. The Associated Press reports in a May 11, 1862, dispatch that advancing Union cavalry have pushed on to White House, Va., and the Custis estate owned by a relative of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. AP reports Virginia's alarmed "citizens are flocking in from the surrounding country" to the protection of Richmond and Confederates have "burnt the railroad bridge and tore up the road for some distance" toward that city. At the time, AP reports, the closest Union forces are just 23 miles from the gates of Richmond.