This Week in the Civil War

May 20, 2011 - 9:43 AM

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 22: Virginia ratifies secession.

On May 23, 1861, voters in a Virginia convention ratify an ordinance for the state's secession from the Union as a divided nation lurched toward all-out war. South Carolina had been the first state to secede in December 1860. It was followed afterward by six other Southern slave states, including North Carolina on May 20. Virginia initially was among states seeking a way out of the crisis and delegates initially opposed secession in February 1861. But the Confederate artillery attack on federal troops at Fort Sumter, S.C., in April joins other developments in shifting the mood on the political landscape. In late May, Richmond replaces Montgomery, Ala., as the capital of the Confederacy and its president, Jefferson Davis, arrived there to great fanfare on May 29, 1861. Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina secede this month, bringing to 11 the number of Southern states forming the Confederacy.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, May 29: Lincoln's troops off Virginia, shots fired.

President Abraham Lincoln, moving to enforce a previously declared blockade on Southern seaports, bolsters Union forces at Fort Monroe near Hampton, Va., one key to his strategy to cut supply lines to secessionists and dominate the coast between Virginia and the Carolinas.

Both sides are on edge. A correspondent for The Associated Press reports from Fort Monroe in late May that the area bristles with Union troops: "A force of 7,500 men, including a few regulars and 4 pieces of artillery, formed to-day ... near the mouth of the James River, about ten miles from Fortress Monroe." The dispatch adds: "The rebel battery fired four shots ... and though over three miles distant, the shot fell but little short, indicating that the guns of the rebel battery are of the heaviest calibre." Other dispatches report a number of runaway slaves are streaming to the fort from the Virginia countryside and Union commanders are holding them as "contraband of war." One escaped slave is quoted in a May 27 dispatch of the Boston Journal as saying: "We heard that if we could get in here we should be free, or, at any rate, we should be among friends."

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, June 5: The business of war, an early confrontation.

The New York Tribune, echoing the uncertainty of Northerners and Southerners alike, speculates on the shape and scope of the looming war and the Union strategy as the hot summer approaches: "During the coming Summer our troops will doubtless be chiefly employed in holding the forts, navy yards, and arsenals now in our possession in the seceded States; in fortifying and protecting the national Capital and ... (in) being prepared to protect loyal and punish rebellious citizens." But such newspaper speculation doesn't foresee the grinding July battles on the horizon, nor the length and final cost of the conflict, adding "when autumn shall usher in invigorating breezes, heavy columns will descend into the rebel territories ... till our flag waves in triumph ..." Other dispatches report Washington is well garrisoned with troops from the North and special provisions have been made for the feeding of such a fighting force. The secretary of war requisitions rail cars from the North to transport troops toward Manassas Junction, northern Virginia, for battles to come. In southern Virginia, an early battle erupts June 10 when Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler sends forces from Hampton and Newport News toward Confederates stationed at Little and Big Bethel, Va. The federal forces attack along a road, are turned back and one commander is killed as Union forces withdraw. There are reports of at least 1 Confederate killed and others wounded.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, June 12: Troop movements, big explosion.

A telegraphed dispatch via The Associated Press reports more U.S. army troops, backed by calvary, are headed to Washington from the West as Lincoln masses his forces. There are occasional sightings of Confederate soldiers on the Virginia side of the Potomac River and one dispatch June 8 notes a New York regiment "took five prisoners and three horses" and seized cattle from a party herding the livestock to "the secessionists." Reports indicate breastworks are being thrown up and cannons sent by federal forces to northern Virginia amid at least one minor skirmish near the Fairfax courthouse. One dispatch reports of federal forces: "The troops labor hard during the day and sleep soundly at night, disturbed only by an occasional exchange of shots between their guards and the Virginia scouts." On June 14, The Boston Herald reports from Frederick Md., that "a special agent of the Associated Press has returned from Maryland Heights overlooking Harper's Ferry" in what is present-day West Virginia. The dispatch reports Confederate forces near there had withdrawn and, later, a "tremendous report was heard, caused by the explosion of mines" under the 100-foot-long Baltimore and Ohio road and rail span crossing the Potomac. "In one hour the entire structure was in ruins" and a telegraph station and railroad works of the federal government also were destroyed.