Saturday, January 31, 2015

The War in 1865: Part Two

A map depicting the massive Union naval bombardment of Fort Fisher.  One of the many fine features of The Civil War Today app is that it is filled with period maps in high detail, an excellent historic resource to understand the geography, battle formations, and other important aspects of the war.  This particular map has been reduced to about 30% of its actual size. You can pinch and zoom easily inside the app to see the names of the individual ships and their respective lines of fire.
Note: This is the second part of my continuing series on the end of the War Between the States as depicted in an iPad app, The Civil War Today.

General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick was promoted to major general.  The Union continued to promote, remove, and change commanders and responsibilities in anticipation of the upcoming spring campaign season.  Kilpatrick was servicing under General William T. Sherman at the time and he would contribute to the forthcoming Carolinas Campaign. On the Confederate side, General John Bell Hood requested permission to resign his command of what little remained of the Army of Tennessee.

The US House of Representatives ended its debate on a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery with long-serving Pennsylvanian Congressman Thaddeus Stevens speaking out in favor of abolition as a necessary step in reuniting the war-torn nation.  The House agreed to hold a vote on this historic legislation at the end of January.

After a delay of several days, Union forces successfully landed at Fort Fisher under the support of a massive barrage from a large naval force commanded by Admiral D.D. Porter.  The Federal infantry, under General Alfred Terry, succeeded in positioning itself between the road to Wilmington and the fort in order to block any possible Rebel reinforcements and immediately entrenched themselves.  General Braxton Bragg arrived in Wilmington from Richmond to command the Confederate forces but reinforcements were scarce and the fort would remain isolated.  The bombardment, which lasted for several hours, both weaken the fort and covered the maneuvers of the invading infantry.

On January 14, the Union fleet intensified its bombardment of Fort Fisher.  As many as 100 shells per minute fell on the Confederate fortification throughout the day causing scores of Rebel casualties.  60 ships concentrated their fire on the large earthen-fortified area making this one of the most concentrated and powerful naval bombardments in history. The only Southern response came from the CSS Chickamauga located on the Cape Fear River, which fired upon the entrenching Northern infantry as best it could throughout the day.  General William H.C. Whiting, commanding at Fort Fisher, warned General Bragg of an impending Union ground attack upon the fort.

The barrage continued until mid-afternoon on the next day, at which point the Union troops attacked from two sides.  The Confederates quickly exited their bomb shelters and manned their positions. The first Union assault was made upon the fort's strongest point by naval troops and marines.  It was repulsed, but it turned out to be a diversionary attack. General Terry launched the main Federal advance after the Southerners had committed to the fort's initial threat and breached the walls after repeated assaults against determined opposition. Bitter hand-to-hand combat ensued with the Rebels contesting every strongpoint within the fort.

Eventually, Southern resistance made a last stand at Battery Buchanan.  The Union committed fresh troops in the form of the 27th Colored Regiment. These black troops helped breach the final wall as Union ships resumed their devastating rain of fire. It was after sundown when the Confederates finally put up a white flag of surrender.  Fort Fisher had fallen and with it the blockade of Wilmington was secured, a strategic blow to Confederate logistics as no ports remained open for supplies from Europe. The Yankees suffered about 1,200 casualties, the Rebels some 500 in addition to over 1,000 prisoners.  General Whiting was wounded resisting the Northern attack.

On January 16, scores of Union troops and Confederate prisoners were killed by a massive explosion of the fort's main ammunition magazine. The cause of the explosion was unknown. Secretary Edwin Stanton visited the fort later in the day on his return north after a strategic meeting with General Sherman in Savannah, Georgia.  General Terry honored the Secretary by presenting him with the fort's surrendered Confederate flag. Meanwhile, the Unionist State Convention in Nashville nominated a new governor for the state and voted to abolish slavery and nullify the secession of the state.  A general election to approve all this was scheduled for late February.

In Savannah, General Sherman's 60,000 troops were delayed in their invasion of South Carolina and eastern Georgia by heavy rains.  Sherman divided his army into two large commands, one would be sent toward Charleston, SC the other toward Augusta, Georgia.  The plan was to divert the meager Confederate forces facing him away from Sherman's true target - Columbia, South Carolina.  The rains would last for several days, the heaviest recorded rainfall for that southern region in 20 years.  Sherman continued preparations for the upcoming campaign and attempted to reopen the port of Savannah for trade, offering shipping services to local cotton growers and other large merchants upon transport vessels headed to northern ports.

Maryland politician Francis P. Blair was sent by President Abraham Lincoln through Union lines to Richmond for informal talks with Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Blair was tasked with feeling out the Southern leader for possible peace talks.  Davis sent a personal letter through Blair back to Lincoln expressing the willingness to enter talks "between our two countries."  Lincoln refused to entertain any discussions wherein the Confederacy would be recognized as a separate country, insisting that the talks remain informal and conducted between disagreeing factions of the United States.

Two blockade runners, who were apparently unaware that Fort Fisher had fallen, were captured near the fort by the Union navy.  Meanwhile, down in Charleston Harbor, the Union monitor Patapsco struck a Confederate mine, sinking and killing about 60 sailors.  As this happened, General Sherman's army began to move into South Carolina and eastern Georgia.  General John Gibbon, famed commander of "the Iron Brigade," took over command of the Army of the James from interim commander Edward Ord.

Skirmishing intensified throughout the war-torn country. Confederate cavalry attacked and was repulsed in Virginia, some 10 miles from Harper's Ferry.  Likewise, there were skirmishes near Waynesville, Missouri, near Fort Larned, Kansas, and along the North Carolina coast near Fort Fisher. Elsewhere, General Sherman left Savannah for South Carolina, moving by streamer to Port Royal.  His plans were to establish his headquarters near Coosawatchie, SC.

Fighting near Clarksville, Arkansas led to the capture and burning of a Federal ship by the Confederates. Union troops also met heavy resistance along Benton Road south of Little Rock, AR.  In New Orleans, the Federals prepared for an offensive but their intent was difficult to discern. Most likely the objective would be in vicinity Mobile Bay, Alabama though Galveston, Texas was also a possibility.  Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, commander of Southern forces west of the Mississippi River and headquartered in Shreveport, Louisiana, prepared a response for either possibility.

General Hood's request to be relieved command of the Army of Tennessee was granted.  General Richard Taylor was appointed to fill his position. Taylor would command a rag-tag remnant of the army that numbered about 65,000 when Hood took over before the fall of Atlanta.  This remnant (about 18,000 effective troops) was made even smaller as much of Taylor's command was ordered to the Carolinas to help combat General Sherman's advance.

In Richmond, the Confederate Congress voted to resume prisoner exchanges with the North. Exchanges took place sporadically throughout the war, usually in the form of a gentleman's agreement between local commanders.  Since 1863 these exchanges were almost nonexistent, leading to overcrowding in the prisons both North and South.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant authorized and formalized this most recent exchange agreement. It was hoped that this agreement would lead to better conditions for the many prisoners exchanged.

Both sides shared concerns for the treatment of their prisoners.  In the North, the POW camp near Elmira, New York had swelled well beyond capacity, with many Southern prisoners living without shelter, suffering from disease and malnutrition.  Unknown hundreds had died at Elmira. Meanwhile, the infamous Confederate camp at Andersonville contains some 46,000 prisoners in 1865.  Rations were meager all across the South, even for the Confederate armies and the population.  So it is even worse on these Northern prisoners.  A staggering 13,000 died at Andersonville during the course of the war.

Over the course of three days a dozen Confederate gunships including three ironclads, one of the largest Southern river concentrations of the war, attempted to break through Union defenses on the James River.  The Southerners wanted to reach General Grant's headquarters and supply depot at City Point, Virginia.  After intense fighting with Union batteries which lead to the sinking of a few Confederate ships, the Southern force withdrew up the James River to safety toward Richmond.  The Southerners knew that most of the Union monitor vessels were away at Fort Fisher and thought they would test the Union for weakness, and possibly threaten Grant's logistics, along the James.

General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army in the trenches around Petersburg, reported to the Confederate government that desertions were on the rise in the Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee expressed that the primary reason for this was the lack of food and supplies.  Further, he categorically stated that he would not consider reducing the daily rations of his troops in order to make ends meet.  He said the efficiency and fighting ability of his army was dependent upon adequate rations and further emphasized his belief that the present shortages were due to a lack of sufficient effort on the part of the Commissary Department.

In South Carolina, the Right Wing of General Sherman's army, under the command of General O.O. Howard, was met with heavy skirmishing as it pressed into that state.  The Left Wing, under General Henry Slocum, was delayed due to the swollen condition of the Savannah River. Confederate General Joseph Wheeler sent out pickets to fire upon the advancing Union troops at every major road and river crossing.  Each time the pickets were driven back, but this slowed the Northern advance to a crawl as the Yankees would have to deploy to attack the pickets, then redeploy to march along the muddy roads.

Confederate President Davis appointed a "peace commission" to be escorted through Union lines to Fort Monroe to confer with Federal officials on the possibility of ending the war. The commission consisted of his Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, former U.S. Senator Robert M.T. Hunter, and former Supreme Court Justice John A. Campbell.  President Lincoln himself authorized the safe passage of this commission thanks to the work of go-between Francis Blair and with the understanding that discussions on both sides would be regarding "our one common country." However, the Army of the James did not receive timely orders regarding this matter.  So the commission was retained at Union lines for one day before passage was allowed.

On that day, January 31, as the commission was allowed passage to Fort Monroe for "informal talks" on ending the war, the U.S. House of Representatives convened to vote on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the abolition of slavery.  There was drama before the vote as rumor had arrived that the Confederates were sending a peace commission to Washington.  Proceedings stopped as it was feared that many of the House Democrats would switch their vote to "no" if a peace commission was at hand.  It took a personal note from President Lincoln indicating that "there is no peace commission in the city, nor is there likely to be." With this assurance the roll-call proceeded.

The amendment was adopted by a vote of 119 - 56 with several Democrats either abstaining or not present.  Cheers erupted within the House chamber and it was difficult to keep order at times as it became apparent that key Congressional Democrats were crossing party lines to vote with the Republicans.  The amendment would now move on to the States for almost certain ratification.  Slavery and involuntary servitude within the United States was abolished.

No comments: