This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Sept. 4: Why the Wait?
The July defeat of federal forces at First Bull Run in Manassas still weighs heavily on President Abraham Lincoln as summer turns to fall in 1861. Lincoln earlier gave command of the Army of the Potomac to Maj. Gen. George McClellan, hoping to reorganize the army after the Union defeat at Bull Run. McClellan's forces spend the late summer weeks training, drilling and training some more. Some observers watch and wait impatiently, critical of McClellan's weeks of drills while urging a resumption of battle. Yet Lincoln is willing so far to give McClellan time to pull together a unified fighting force after its panicked, disordered retreat from Bull Run. Inaction ultimately will be McClellan's undoing in months further ahead. This week another Union officer, Ulysses S. Grant, shows the first flashes of military prowess that will eventually take him to the pinnacle of Lincoln's army. On Sept. 6, 1861, Grant is days into his command in southeastern Missouri when he seizes the offensive. He orders Union troops _ backed by gunboats _ to Paducah, Ky., occupying that strategic junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers without a fight. The move is critical to Lincoln's strategy of keeping Kentucky in the Union. Eight weeks later, Grant will claim his first wartime victory in Missouri. For now, though, the buildup to further fighting is slow as impatient voices are also heard on the Southern side of the fight. South Carolina's Charleston Mercury calls in a Sept. 5, 1861 editorial for a quick Confederate offensive against Washington. The call goes unheeded. It's a time of training, arming and clothing soldiers on both sides. "There is much need for blankets and socks for our army, at this time, as there is for ammunitions and war," writes one Confederate official, John Campbell, in an appeal this week in Southern newspapers for help with the war effort.
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, commander of the Army of the Potomac, faces a rising popular and political clamor in September 1861 to attack Confederate forces arrayed beyond Washington. He chafes at calls for immediate action, wary he could be made the scapegoat if any disastrous misstep turns the tide of war against the Union. Yet aides to Presiden Abraham Lincoln fret at a Cabinet meeting Sept. 27, 1861, about the lack of offensive moves. McClellan is present. Still, McClellan's weeks of training and drilling have begun shaping largely green troops into a fighting force. And President Abraham Lincoln patiently allows his general 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 nearly within view of Washington after a skirmish in northern Virginia. Months down the road, McCellan will embark on a long-awaited Peninsula Campaign _ a failed but 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 lose his command for settling for a draw _ as Lincoln thirsts for crushing victory. This month, Louisiana farmers recoil from heavy storms that ruin corn and cotton crops needed to feed and clothe the Confederate army. Dispatches report bickering in the Confederate congress over ill-fed and badly uniformed recruits. Yet one Southern newspaper boasts Confederate troops far outnumber McClellan's at an astonishing 185,000 men _ adding they are "clothed and fed on a scale of amazing liberality, and are regularly paid in gold or bank paper." One commentator scoffs that the numbers are impossibly inflated, adding the worst-off Confederate troops are near "nakedness and starvation."