The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54
By Chris Oakley
adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
Summary: In Part 1 of this series we explored how the defeat of a proposed "Compromise of 1850" in Congress laid the groundwork for the Southern Rebellion War and reviewed some of the war’s first major engagements. In this chapter, we’ll review the Second Battle of Petersburg; the Confederate Republic’s attempts to enlist foreign aid for its cause; and the introduction of ironclad warships into naval combat during the Rebellion War’s second year.
One year to the day after the Southern states had commenced their boycott of the United States Congress, Robert E. Lee was preparing the Army of Northern Virginia to defend the Shenandoah Valley against an anticipated Union invasion. After organizing the ANV, Lee had reviewed the reports of the First Battle of Petersburg and been rather visibly disappointed by the multitude of tactical and strategic errors made by the Confederate Army in the field during that engagement. He was very determined that those errors shouldn’t be repeated.
While General Lee was busy lining up his forces for the expected Union assault on the Shenandoah, Confederate diplomats had started to make their way to the great capitals of Europe in a concerted effort to secure official foreign recognition of the Confederate Republic as a sovereign state. President Toombs knew that French and Spanish aid to General Washington during the American Revolution had made all the difference in winning the fight for independence from the British; he felt that if he could acquire the support of one or more of the major European powers in the Confederacy’s struggle to break itself free of Washington, it would hasten the day of the CRA’s final victory over its Northern enemy. He was especially eager to obtain the aid of Great Britain, then the world’s premier military and naval power.
To that end, three senior Confederate diplomats sailed for Britain in early September of 1851 hoping to persuade Queen Victoria and her prime minister the Earl of Aberdeen to grant the Confederate Republic recognition as a sovereign state. Accomplishing that goal, though, was easier said than done; Aberdeen’s cabinet was sharply divided over how to respond to the Southern insurrection, and these same divisions were also evident among the British public. The most which the Confederate diplomats could obtain from the Queen or her prime minister was their promise the Confederacy’s petition for diplomatic recognition would be taken under strong consideration.
The Confederate diplomatic mission to France wasn’t even able to obtain that much; the French government at the time was by and large pro-Federal, and in fact had just invited a delegation of Union Army officers to Paris to observe French army maneuvers out in the Normandy countryside. When the Confederate diplomats finally did manage to see French president Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte after a three-day wait, he bluntly rejected their pleas to grant the Confederate Republic French recognition as a sovereign state; the diplomats returned to Charleston in a state of utter dejection.
That dejection was eased somewhat, however, when in early October of 1851 General Lee handed the Federal army a shocking defeat at the Battle of Winchester. Union forces attempting to seize the Virginia town had a three-to-one advantage in artillery against Winchester’s Confederate defenders, and the Union regimental commanders leading the attack thought this would enable them to take the town with relative ease. However, Lee ingeniously overcame this disadvantage by deploying his cavalry troops to exploit a weakness in the right flank of the Federal lines. When the Confederate cavalry attacked, the Union troops barely knew what hit them.
"They descended on us like locusts." a Union Army infantry major would recall in his memoirs ten years later. "No sooner had we driven them back on one side than they came at us from another...they were devoid of the slightest speck of fear, and by noon my regiment was in shameful and headlong retreat." A similar fate befell many other Union regiments before the battle was over, and within a week newspapers all across the South were printing headlines praising General Lee as the greatest military strategist since Napoleon Bonaparte; more than a few of the cavalry officers under Lee’s command would be awarded personal commendations from him for their valor at Winchester. Lee himself got congratulatory telegrams from Confederate Secretary of War Conrad and President Toombs shortly after the battle ended.
The Confederate victory at Winchester prompted Union Secretary of War Scott to order a shakeup in the higher echelons of the Union Army. Ten days after the battle Scott sent for one of his old staff officers from his Mexican War days, Ethan Allen Hitchcock, who’d served as his inspector general during Scott’s advance on Mexico City; Hitchcock, a grandson and namesake of Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen who had a reputation as an effective field commander and had begun his military career as commander of cadets at West Point, was told upon arriving in Washington that Scott needed him to take charge of the Union front in the Appalachian region. The defeats at Winchester and Harrisonburg had shaken Union morale to the core, and Scott needed a man of Hitchcock’s caliber to take the Appalachian front in hand and turn things around. Hitchcock modestly said it should be Scott who was in command of the Union armies there-- to which the Union Secretary of War replied with a wry chuckle that he would have indeed been leading those armies had Charles Magill Conrad not resigned from President Fillmore’s cabinet and put Fillmore in the awkward position of needing a new head for the War Department just as the Confederate uprising got started.
As it turned out, the newly designated General Hitchcock would only have a short time to lead the Union forces before fate intervened to pluck him out of the saddle....
The Confederate Army of Tennessee was led by General Alexander W. Doniphan, a Missouri native and former US Army lieutenant colonel who had originally deemed himself a neutral in the argument between North and South over slavery but had volunteered for combat duty with the CS Army after his house was destroyed in a raid by anti-slavery militias on his hometown just after the states of the Confederate Republic had formally announced their secession from the Union. Doniphan, a Mexican War veteran like Hitchcock, looked forward to the challenge of forcing his way through the Union’s defenses in the west.
Had the governor of Kentucky not vetoed the secession bill passed by his state’s legislature the year before, the Confederate Army could have simply stationed troops along the Kentucky-Ohio state line and waited patiently for the right moment to send them into the North. But since Kentucky was in the Union camp-- albeit by the most slender of threads --Doniphan and his men would find it necessary to fight their way over the Kentucky border. And these were hardly greenhorn troopers the Army of Tennessee was dealing with; many of the Union soldiers who guarded the Kentucky frontier were, like Doniphan, veterans of the Mexican War, and even the men who hadn’t seen action in that conflict were well-trained in the basics of combat.
And before Doniphan’s regiments could even think of marching into Kentucky, they would have to repel a number of Union Army thrusts into western Tennessee. The first of those offensives came in mid-July of 1851 about two and a half weeks after Fort Sumter; it started out with great promise, and at one point Union infantry actually succeeded in taking Nashville. But a vigorous counterattack by Doniphan against the thinly stretched left flank of the Union lines derailed the offensive, and the Union invasion forces were forced to pull back to the Kentucky border in a fairly bloody retreat, with one entire battalion losing 90 percent of its men during a firefight with Confederate troops at the town of Gallatin on August 7th.
Hoping to smash the remnants of the Union assault force, Doniphan ordered his regiments to execute a pincer movement on the rear flank of that force. But because of foul-ups in communication, many of his regimental commanders didn’t get those orders until it was too late, and as a result hundreds of Union soldiers were able to escape to the safety of Kentucky and Ohio. This established a pattern that would continue for months to come, one in which the battle lines within the Tennessee-Kentucky border region would repeatedly shift back and forth like the ocean waves lapping America’s Atlantic coastline.
The Union Navy’s quest for control of the waters off that coast would be aided by a new breed of warships then starting to be built in shipyards in New York City and Boston. Fittingly enough the first such "ironclad" was named Plymouth Rock after the Cape Cod site at which the Pilgrims had disembarked from another famous ship, the Mayflower, back in 1620. Farsighted men in all countries had long been aware that warships made of metal must eventually replace their wooden brethren; even without the stimulus of the Southern Rebellion War to bring it about, it’s likely the introduction of ironclad naval vessels would have happened by 1870 at the latest.
Yet the war did come, and it hastened the evolution of this new type of warship. Construction on the Plymouth Rock had started just after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter; had it not been for some unfortunate bureaucratic mistakes in the Navy Department during the construction process, Plymouth Rock could have been ready for action as early as November of 1851; as it was, the ironclad would have to wait until the spring of 1852 to embark on its maiden patrol. But when Plymouth finally did make it into action, it would shake up the rules of naval combat as few warships had before-- or would again until the 20th century...
After the First Battle of Petersburg was over, the residents of that West Virginia town had hoped they would never again hear the sounds of cannon fire or marching feet in their midst. Unfortunately for them, those hopes would inevitably be dashed; given the sizable numbers of troops which both the Union and Confederate armies had lined up along the Virginia-West Virginia state line, one could easily foresee that sooner or later the town would once again be turned into a battleground-- especially considering that Petersburg was right in the line of any potential Union advance towards the Shenandoah River.
Indeed, even as the Plymouth Rock and her sister ships were being assembled, the general staffs in both Washington and Charleston were making preparations for a showdown in the Shenandoah Valley region. It was common knowledge among Hitchcock’s and Lee’s staff officers that the fight for the Shenandoah would have considerable influence on the course of the rest of the Southern Rebellion War-- Confederate victory would pave the way for an assault on Maryland, while if the Union Army won Hitchcock’s regiments would be in position to make a serious drive into Virginia.
Some of Hitchcock’s more optimistic regimental commanders felt that if they played their cards right, they could have all of Virginia in Union hands by the end of spring and begin marching on Charleston as early as the 4th of July. Hitchcock himself was considerably more cautious, however, remembering how overeagerness by some Union field commanders in the early days of the war had led to diaster.
As they stockpiled arms to face each other in the Shenandoah, the Union and Confederate armies were simultaneously waging a fierce struggle against a common enemy-- what the Russians would later call "General Winter". Those accustomed to the idea of the Deep South as a place of perpetual sunshine and 80-degree days are often surprised to learn that winters in Virginia can sometimes be just as harsh as(if not harsher than) any one might experience up in New England or in the Great Plains. Yet biting winds and heavy snows were a daily fact of life at the front for the ordinary Union or Confederate soldier in the months immediately prior to the Union Army’s 1852 Shenandoah Valley campaign; between November of 1851 and March of 1852, when the Union Army began its Shenandoah offensive, more Union and Confederate troops died from illness or frostbite than from hostile gunfire.
But the guns of the opposing armies were hardly silent during those months; although weather might have curtailed any large-scale operations before the coming of spring, there were plenty of low-level skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces, usually on foraging parties where one side’s troops were trying to secure food or firewood and the other side’s men fought to defend their supplies against the foragers. One such skirmish happened on December 17th, 1851 when a band of ANV infantrymen tried to slip into Union-held territory in West Virginia to raid a Union Army food supply depot and were confronted by squads of Union soldiers just coming back from their nightly patrol.
"They shot at us like we were wild turkeys." a participant of the ill-fated raid would recall twenty years after the fact.1 "Two of the fellows with me were killed with the first blast of gunfire, and I might have been killed too if I hadn’t had the good luck to discover a tree which was big enough to shield me from the Yankee rifles. The sergeant who was leading us, may God have mercy on his soul, took a bullet right in the throat and bled to death before my eyes...the look of sheer agony and suffering on his face as his life ebbed away will haunt me to my grave."
What makes this raid notable out of the hundreds of such foraging missions that took place prior to the 1852 Shenandoah campaign was that the Union patrol which turned back the ANV foragers’ raid was attached to a larger unit under the command of an officer who would one day gain a reputation as one of the greatest generals in American history-- an Ohio native named William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman, a Mexican War veteran, had originally planned to resign from the Army when his tour of duty was up and go into civilian business, but the outbreak of the Southern Rebellion War had changed all that; realizing that his combat experience would be needed, he signed up for another hitch in the Army and thus would be on the front lines of the Shenandoah offensive when it began.
While the Union and Confederate armies were continuing to gather troops and munitions for their impending confrontation in the Shenandoah Valley, the Union navy was preparing to introduce ironclads to its arsenal. In early March of 1852, ten days before the Union Army launched its Shenandoah campaign, the USS Plymouth Rock left Boston to begin its maiden patrol off the CRA coastline; Confederate spies had not had much luck in their efforts to learn the truth about this new weapon, thus it would be an X factor in Confederate strategic planning until its crew had fired a shot in anger.
The initial demonstrations of Plymouth Rock’s capabilities as a warship were, to put it generously, unimpressive. In fact it was a bit of a miracle the ironclad didn’t fall apart the minute it left Boston Harbor; in both design and construction it was badly flawed, and its internal environment was almost as hazardous to its crew as any enemy vessel they might encounter in the line of duty. In the course of its first patrol, at least two crewmen succumbed to what ship’s logs then described as "tainted air"; modern forensic archeologists believe the two men were poisoned by fumes from the ship’s engines.
But the Union Navy would gradually overcome these difficulties, and as more and more ironclads came off the docks at Union shipyards the Confederate Navy would realize much to its dismay that the era of wooden sailing ships was unmistakably and decisively coming to an end. The CRA would eventually inaugurate a crash program to build its own ironclad warships, but those would be even more fraught with design troubles than their Union counterparts; at least two of those ships would still be in drydock when the Southern Rebellion War entered its third year.
On March 15th, 1852 the Union Army finally began its Shenandoah campaign. Hitchcock’s troops struck the Confederate lines along three different fronts, forcing Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia to go on the defensive in the opening hours of the Union onslaught. Hitchcock made especially effective use of his cavalry regiments, directing them in a series of flanking maneuvers that some modern military experts regard as a forerunner to some of the mobile assault tactics employed in 20th century ground warfare. Despite heavy Confederate resistance-- and a few questionable tactical decisions by some of General Hitchcock’s own field commanders --the Union advance columns were able to push almost twelve miles into northern Virginia before Lee’s own army started its counterattack.
About three weeks after the Union Army’s Shenandoah campaign got started, Union and Confederate troops fought the Second Battle of Petersburg. The Second Battle of Petersburg was a minor affair in comparison to the first one, but it would prove to have a major effect on the subsequent course of the Southern Rebellion War: on April 9th, while visiting the Union lines near Petersburg to inspect Union Army forward positions there, General Ethan Allen Hitchcock was shot and fatally wounded by a Confederate sniper. He died the next morning and would be buried with full honors in his home state of Vermont on April 13th.
Union Secretary of War Winfield Scott blamed himself for the general’s demise and offered his resignation to President Fillmore on April 15th. Fillmore accepted the resignation with one condition: upon stepping down from his post as Secretary of War, Scott was to return to active duty with the US Army and succeed General Hitchcock as C-in-C of the Union forces on the Virginia front. If ever there were a time and place when Scott’s Mexican War experience were needed, Fillmore said, the time was now and the place was on the battle lines of the Union Army’s Shenandoah campaign.
Winfield Scott formally assumed command of the Union armies in Virginia on April 20th, 1852. Before Scott was done, the Confederate armies opposing him would be wishing Scott had perished in the deserts of Mexico...
To Be Continued
 Quoted from the book My Life As A Confederate Soldier, copyright 1871.