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A House Divided:

The Southern Rebellion, 1850-54


By Chris Oakley

Part 6


adapted from material previously posted at Othertimelines.com




Summary: In the first five episodes of this series we looked at the causes of the Southern Rebellion War: the early battles of the war itself; the Union’s introduction of ironclad naval vessels in an attempt to get the upper hand over the Confederacy; how General Ethan Allen Hitchcock’s death led to a shakeup in the Fillmore presidential cabinet; the Confederate invasion of Kentucky in the summer of 1852; the Union counteroffensive that drove out the invaders; and the Confederates’ stunning victory at the Battle of Knoxville. In this chapter we’ll review the Confederate attempt to establish a foothold in Indiana and how a previously little-known Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln was suddenly thrust into national prominence by the Southern Rebellion War.


War can break some men’s careers and make others. In the Southern Rebellion War, a number of prominent figures who before the war seemed predestined for greatness instead met with utter ruin; conversely, those who in previous years might have toiled away in obscurity found themselves catapulted to fame and fortune. To the second category belonged Abraham Lincoln, a Springfield, Illinois lawyer who had served in his state’s militia during the Black Hawk War and briefly served in the US House of Representatives just before the Southern Rebellion War broke out. While no one can say with any degree of certainty if he would have ever achieved national political eminence in the absence of the conflict, it is certainly clear that the war expedited his rise to such eminence. Some historians credit Lincoln’s pro-Union articles and letters in Illinois newspapers with laying the foundation for his return to politics and his eventual rise to the presidency in the postwar era.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Lincoln began to make the journey back to the political arena, most historians agree the Battle of Knoxville was an important early influence on his lifepath in this regard. In the aftermath of that horrendous Union defeat, Lincoln penned an article strongly criticizing the War Department’s handling of that campaign; one particularly well-known line from that article said irreverently of a certain popular general, "The problem with him is he had his headquarters where his hindquarters should have been."

Lincoln’s criticisms fell on many a receptive ear, and before long he began receiving letters from other pro-Unionists urging him to campaign for the House of Representatives or the Senate and be a voice for those who wanted the officers who led the Union forces at Knoxville held accountable for their failures and replaced with men who could lead the Union Army to final victory over the Confederate armies. He initially was skeptical regarding the idea of resuming his former profession, but gradually his views on that score changed as it became clear how many people shared his attitudes regarding the Union and the Southern Rebellion War. What finally persuaded him to re-enter the political arena was a newspaper article published in January of 1853 that described growing dissatisfaction in Congress with the newly re-elected President Millard Fillmore’s reluctance to push more forcefully for an end to slavery in America once the Union Army had finished putting down the Southern Rebellion.

Within days after the article went to press Lincoln had made up his mind to campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate-- a decision made somewhat easier by the news that the man who then held the seat in question was facing bribery charges and the distinct possibility of being either impeached or forced to resign office. Lincoln’s backers soon took to dubbing him "Honest Abe" as a means of emphasizing the distinction between Lincoln’s integrity and the incumbent’s (to put it generously)flexible ethics.

Lincoln was a fearless campaigner-- and he needed to be in order to stand out among a crowded field of contenders for the soon-to-be-vacant Senate post. Even as he was officially declaring himself as a candidate for the post, a prominent Democratic lawmaker by the name of Stephen A. Douglas had already emerged as the front-runner in the special election and the odds-on favorite to win. Douglas did have a potential political Achilles’ heel; unlike Lincoln, he was willing to compromise with the rebelling Southern states on the question of abolishing slavery once the war was over. With public sentiment in the Northern states having become steadily more anti-slavery since the beginning of the Southern Rebellion War, this made Douglas’ lead over the rest of the candidate field somewhat narrower than he would have liked and opened the door for Lincoln to begin undermining him.

The first blow struck by Lincoln in his bid to thwart Douglas’ Senate hopes came at a series of open-air meetings popularly known as "the Lincoln-Douglas debates". Using the rhetorical weapons he’d mastered in his career as a lawyer, Lincoln hammered away at every inconsistency he could find in Douglas’ positions on slavery and the question of what to do with the rebel states after the war was over; by the time the last debate was held, Douglas found himself trailing not only Lincoln but also a third-party candidate who’d jumped into the race at the 11th hour. On Election Day itself, the voting was so tight between Lincoln, Douglas, and the third-party man that for a few hours local election officials thought a recount might well turn out to be necessary to determine the winner.

But when the last ward had reported in, and the last ballots had been counted, Abraham Lincoln emerged victorious and Stephen A. Douglas’ political career lay in ruins. Douglas’ inability to take a more consistent position on the questions of slavery and what to do with the rebelling southern states once the war was over had come back to haunt him....and would go on haunting him for years to come.


Meanwhile, over in neighboring Indiana, the state militia was bracing itself for the threat of a Confederate attack. Between the constant wrangling between Union and Confederate forces for control of Kentucky and the secret efforts by Confederate agents behind the Union lines to stir up trouble in the Hoosier State, public fears of a Confederate invasion-- or at least a Confederate-backed uprising against the state government --were never far from the minds of the men charged with keeping Indiana safe. Allan Pinkerton, the Chicago private detective who’d founded the now-famous Pinkerton Agency, was approached by Indiana’s state leadership for help in investigating rumors of a plan by Confederate spies to launch a series of terror attacks along the Indiana-Kentucky state line.

Accordingly, Pinkerton sent five of his most trusted operatives to Indianapolis to infiltrate the largest Confederate spy ring with the twofold purpose of (A)gathering whatever information they could on the Confederate agents’ terror plans and (B)disrupting said plans by sowing dissention within the enemy spies’ ranks via the spreading of rumors damaging to Confederate morale and the forging of papers which implied some of the Confederate moles in Indiana were double agents working for the Union on the sly to sabotage the Confederate cause. How effective the Pinkerton agents were at the second task is a matter still hotly debated among historians today, but there’s no question they succeeded brilliantly at the first job: thanks partly to their own finely tuned investigative skills and partly to a few moments of indiscretion from Confederate moles who should have known better, the Pinkerton undercover agents were able to gather a wealth of information on the Confederate Republic’s plans for Indiana.

The Pinkerton spies then send coded letters back to their boss in Chicago to inform him of what they’d learned; Pinkerton in turn soon arranged a meeting with President Fillmore and Fillmore’s top military advisors at the White House to debrief them on the results of his agency’s inquiry into the Confederacy’s covert activities on Hoosier soil. What Fillmore heard, while it greatly alarmed him, was later to prove highly useful in creating strategies to neutralize the Confederate terror plot. Within a few days of his meeting with Allan Pinkerton, Fillmore had quietly authorized the deployment of federal troops to arrest those men who had any connections with the terror campaign.

Realizing that the jig was up, the Confederate spies tried to make their escape as best they could, but most of them would end up walking right into the waiting arms of Union soldiers dispatched to arrest them. Many of the rest would either commit suicide or die in a hail of Union bullets; only a handful made it back to Confederate territory alive. It was a blow from which the Confederate Republic’s intelligence services would take a fatally long time to recover...


...but while the Indiana terror plot might have been a failure, conventional Confederate forces managed to pull off a major victory elsewhere. In April of 1853, about two months after the publication of the newspaper article which had spurred Lincoln to re-enter politics, a Confederate cavalry detachment crossed the Kentucky state line under cover of darkness and captured the towns of Monticello and Williamsburg before Union field commanders even knew it was there. Due partly to a combination of faulty information gathering and partly to the disruption of telegraph services in the area by heavy rains, it took the Union War Department almost four days to get the full story on what had happened at Williamstown and Monticello, and in the meantime the Confederates were able to ferry additional troops into those towns.

When Union troops finally attempted to dislodge Confederate occupation forces from Williamstown, their assault was repulsed with heavy casualties; one Union infantry detachment was literally wiped out to the last man. The effort to retake Monticello didn’t fare all that much better, given the furious artillery onslaught unleashed by the Confederates when Union advance troops tried to enter that town. More than one modern military historian has suggested that with one or two more regiments at its disposal in the Monticello-Williamstown area, the Confederate Army might well have been able to shatter the  Union forces in Kentucky once and for all and deliver the Bluegrass State into the Confederate orbit.

As it was, the occupation of Monticello and Williamstown had revived Union Army fears of a back-door Confederate push into West Virginia. It also gave a new momentum to the abolitionists’ crusade to convince the War Department to recruit freed blacks for the Union Army; the ink was barely dry on the newspapers announcing the Union defeat at Williamstown before one of the most prominent men in the abolitionist camp, William Lloyd Garrison, embarked on a trip to the White House to personally petition President Fillmore and Union Secretary of War Philip Kearney1 to raise all-black Union Army regiments at the earliest possible opportunity. On his way to the Oval Office Garrison happened to encounter Abraham Lincoln, who had read many of the New Englander’s newspaper editorials on the subject and thus come to share Garrison’s belief in the necessity of opening the Union Army’s ranks to African-American recruits.

With Lincoln’s support, Garrison made a highly persuasive case to President Fillmore about the military and social value of having black troops in the Union Army. By the time Garrison left the White House to return to Boston Fillmore had agreed to take the matter up with Congress; within two weeks after the Garrison-Fillmore summit, Secretary of War Kearney had started calling for able-bodied black volunteers to enlist in the Union armed forces. Despite considerable grumbling among some white Union officers, including at least one member of Kearney’s own senior staffs, thousands of freedmen flocked to answer the call in hopes that fighting for the Union cause might, to coin a popular expression from those days, "bring the Jubilee."

On May 22nd, 1853 the first all-black regiment in American military history, the 47th New Hampshire Infantry, was mustered in Concord, New Hampshire. Its commanding officer’s personal credo was "Victory or death!"-- and before the Southern Rebellion War was over his men would experience plenty of both....


To Be Continued



[1] Kearney succeeded previous Secretary of War Winfield Scott in April of 1852 when Scott resigned to assume command of the Union armies on the Virginia front; see Parts 2 and 3 for further details.


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