This Week in the Civil War

October 24, 2011 - 3:10 AM

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 23: Wired: Telegraph from coast to coast.

The nation is divided by war yet linked at last from coast to coast by a transcontinental telegraph this week in 1861. For some time, the telegraph's eastern terminus only extended from the Atlantic to Nebraska and its western terminus from the California coast inland to Nevada. But Western Union and allied companies succeed in the Herculean task of stringing the slender telegraph wire over deserts and mountains, connecting East and West in a new dawn of instant communication. It has been hard, dirty work for laborers who cut down whole forests for telegraph poles that are carted by ox across rugged passes to be planted and strung with mile after mile of wire. The fabled Pony Express continued to bridge the gap for a while. But now both sides of the wide continent can instantly trade messages of battles lost and won, news large and small. One of the first messages sent announces the death to Oregon of its popular senator, Edward Baker, killed days earlier in fighting in Virginia. The telegraph will revolutionize battlefield communications while allowing a new conduit for news dispatches of The Associated Press. Also this week, a public referendum is held on Oct. 24, 1861, in which a majority in the future state of West Virginia votes for statehood. The intent is to break away from Virginia amid opposition to the Confederacy. In June 1863, West Virginia will become the 35th state, allied with the North as war drags on. This week also sees feverish recruiting of thousands of young men on both sides. The Cleveland Plain Dealer of Ohio — for one — runs a recruitment ad urging prospects to sign up: "If You Do Not Want To Be Drafted, Rally Under the Good Old Flag! Wanted ... Young men that have any regard for their Country."

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Oct. 30: U.S. Army's general-in-chief retires.

A hero of the Mexican War of 1846-48, Winfield Scott departs at the end of October 1861 as general-in-chief of the U.S. Army. He had served more than half a century under 14 presidents, but age and infirmity force him to make way for a young and up-and-coming rival, George B. McClellan. In his 70s when the Civil War opened, Scott weighed more than 300 pounds and could no longer ride a horse. Federal forces did not fare well at the war's outset and that took a political toll on Scott. But many credit his so-called Anaconda Plan for blockading Southern seaports and inland rivers as a key to the eventual Union victory in 1865. News dispatches report on Oct. 28, 1861, that Scott is bowing out for health reasons. "The scarred and worn out veteran Gen. Scott will voluntarily retire from his rank and duties ... solely on account of his physical infirmities," The New York Tribune reports. The same dispatch notes voices in Congress are calling on his successor, McClellan, to immediately rout the Confederates in battle: "The popular demand of their constituents is that Gen. McClellan, or some one else, shall right off whip the Rebels on the south side of the Potomac ... as near Bull Run as is possible, and from thence roll the tide of war steadily Southward." Far from major battle, there is barely even skirmishing. The Associated Press reports on Oct. 25, 1861, that federal scouts crossed the Potomac River near Edwards Ferry but "not a sign of a man or horse was heard, except the splash of the oars of a boat some distance up the river." Nonetheless, rebel pickets are occasionally engaged and a rebel battery is shelled though "the enemy did not reply" with any large guns.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Nov. 6: Battle of Port Royal.

The Associated Press reports that a "great storm at Hatteras Inlet" off North Carolina has drenched Union troops occupying formerly Confederate-held coastal forts there in the first days of November 1861. After the storm, the report adds: "Five rebel steamers came near the inlet yesterday, but returned after firing a couple of shots." The gale is not enough of a deterrent for a U.S. Navy fleet and Army expeditionary force sailing down the coast toward South Carolina on a special mission. The Union force moves into position and opens the Battle of Port Royal Sound, S.C., on Nov. 7, 1861. With heavy fire, the federal warships go on to bombard forts on both sides of the sound, sending overwhelmed Confederate gunboats fleeing after attempts at resistance. First Fort Walker is taken and then Fort Beauregard across the sound is occupied by the Union invaders after Confederates abandon that position. The Union now commands a strategic spot between Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., crucial to enforcing the Northern blockade of Southern seaports. A British steamer, Fingal, will be the last blockade-running ship to slip through this area to nearby Savannah, Ga., on Nov. 13, 1861, carrying munitions and supplies to the Confederates. Separately, AP reports no fighting of note — "all quiet on the entire line of the Potomac." But reports indicate the Confederates have many flatboats capable of quickly crossing the Potomac. And the Charleston Courier of South Carolina boasts: "Our army stands alone in a line of battle .. with bristling bayonets and furbished swords" arrayed across Virginia, ready to fight. The paper also reports hundreds of northern prisoners once held in Richmond, Va., are being moved into South Carolina.

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This Week in The Civil War, for week of Sunday, Nov. 13: Port Royal aftermath, Seizure of Southern envoys.

Detailed accounts by The Associated Press and others of the Battle of Port Royal, S.C., are reaching newspapers around the divided nation in mid-November of 1861. AP reports that Union forces off the South Carolina coast had captured 55 cannons, some 500 muskets and "any quantity of ammunition" during the attack. The dispatch also reports "Thirty dead rebels have been found, and more are being found, having been hastily buried in the sand." The New York Times reports on Nov. 14, 1861, that Union Brig. Gen. Thomas Sherman landed at Port Royal and issued a proclamation to "the people of South Carolina," the state where a Confederate artillery attack on Union-held Fort Sumter opened the war in April 1861. Sherman writes that federal forces have arrived "with no feelings of person animosity; no desire to harm your citizens, destroy your property, or interfere with any of your lawful rights." Yet the proclamation adds: "The civilized world stands appalled at the course you are pursuing! .. You are in a state of active rebellion against the laws of your country ... waging a ruthless war against your Constitutional Government ... "The Times reports new accounts of the battle, that federal warships delivered "raking broadsides" on the two Confederate-held forts lining Port Royal Sound. It adds: "All our accounts concur in testifying that the rebels fought bravely and well. But our broadsides were overwhelming." This month sees another key development in the federal capture of two Southern envoys, James Mason and John Slidell, taken off a British steamer intercepted at sea by the Union warship San Jacinto. The detention of the envoys — who had been sent by the Confederacy to Britain in hopes of boosting support for the South — heightens Union tensions for weeks with Britain.