Civil War

Civil War and Abraham Lincoln: Part I

Mark talks with Professor Gerald J. Prokopowicz about Abraham Lincoln, his youth, early career, presidency and the Civil War. Professor Prokopowicz addresses some of the popular questions readers ask about the sixteenth president as well as some that may be more obscure.

Civil War New Orleans

Mark talks about New Orleans during the Civil War. General Mansfield Lovell assumes military command of New Orleans and begins to shore up the defenses. He affirms that the threat will come upriver from the Gulf of Mexico, despite Richmond’s insistence that he transfer men and boats north. Construction begins on two super CSA gunboats, the Louisiana and Mississippi, said to surpass anything the Union had.

Union Threat Looms Before New Orleans

In the fall of 1861 morale was good in New Orleans and it spirits remained good into the start of 1862. The Confederates had won a decisive victory near Manassas, Virginia at the end of July where Louisiana’s native son, P.G.T. Beauregard had been the victorious commander and Louisiana boys had done well in the battle. At the end of that September, the citizens were treated to the spectacle of a trainload of captured Yankee prisoners marching under guard through the streets en route to the Orleans Parish prison. The local newspapers played it up to The New Orleans Crescent described the unfortunate captured, ushered through the streets under the curious stares of the local citizens who “behaved with their accustomed order and good breeding.” The Yankees were “a hard looking set.”

And they made reference to the notion that the prisoners might be foreign mercenaries, the Daily Crescent warned citizens and military guard alike to be aware of the arrival of “Hessian prisoners” that were on their way to the city by train. As so often in the South, there was a fear of being overrun by foreigners.

There also was a revival of community service in the area. There were festivals and fairs to raise money for families whose breadwinners were away in military service as well as for the less fortunate citizens. The city also began a free market. Public-spirited civilians made donations, the city provided operating funds and the market distributed food and other necessities to all eligible. The city regulated the system and issued tickets to “families and dependents of volunteers” who currently were in Confederate service or those whose had providers had died in service.

New Orleans was functioning and making things work as well as possible, but the diaphanous demon that festered in the minds of merchants, business people as well as everyday citizens was the blockade. In the country’s major port a chokehold on trade stifled the normal spirit, the joie de vivre for which New Orleans was so well known. The hard fact was that the U.S. fleet was maintaining a close watch on the Head of the Passes at the mouth of the Mississippi.

An enterprising group of businessmen, sparked by a former river captain raised the funds to purchase and convert a large, powerful tugboat into a warship. They had the boat covered with what took on the appearance of an armored turtle shell made of iron “T” train track rails. The locals readily applied the moniker, “The Turtle,” which immediately stuck. Its armor rendered it virtually impregnable and certain northern news organizations noted that it was going to be a terrible scourge once let loose on the American fleet.

This was not to be. In command of the Confederate naval defenses was the elderly, but spirited, Commodore George N. Hollins. The Marylander had a distinguished career with the U.S. Navy beginning with his enlistment as a teenager during the War of 1812, and spanning a series of actions and promotions from the Barbary Coast of Africa to Central America. Hollins commandeered the Manassas, staffed the crew with volunteers from within his fleet and steamed downriver.

Hollins had his squadron assembled and moving toward the passes and the Federal ships at midnight. The Union ships, commanded by Captain John Pope, who had served almost as long as Hollins, had the Confederates outgunned by more than double, fifty-five to little more than twenty. But Hollins did have the advantage of range and was able to surprise Pope.

The surprise was a crash as the Manassas rammed the USS Richmond and left a five-inch hole in the hull below the water line. Before sunrise, Pope had his squadron in a retreat, withdrawing downriver toward the Southwest Pass.

Hollins sent a dispatch that in those pre-dawn hours of 12 October he had “attacked” the blockaders and had been successful with “his little fleet.” He was able to achieve “a complete success,” he said. Hollins gave the people of New Orleans hope when he affirmed, “after a very short struggle, [I was able] to drive them all aground on the southwest bar, except the Preble, which I sunk. I have captured a prize from them, and after I got them fast on the sand I peppered them well. No casualties on our side.”

Hood’s Texas Brigade

Mark and guest Susannah J. Ural, a professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi and co-director of the University’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society, discuss her recent book, Hood’s Texas Brigade: The Soldiers and Families of the Confederacy’s Most Celebrated Unit.

Vicksburg Monuments: The Art of Commemoration

General Parker Hills joins Mark to discuss the monuments at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi. General Hills’ book, Art of Commemoration, catalogues and details the magnificent sculpture, architecture, the artists and interpretations that memorialize this incredible Park.

Excerpt from the Introduction to Art of Commemoration

Soon after Vicksburg National Military Park was established in 1899, the nation ‘s leading architects and sculptors were commissioned to honor the soldiers that had fought in the campaign. The park’s earliest state memorial was dedicated in 1903, and over 95 percent of the monuments that followed were erected prior to 1917. An aging Civil War veteran who hastened to Vicksburg to see the resulting works was so impressed that he aptly described Vicksburg National Military Park as “the art park of the world: ‘ The work of commemoration has continued sporadically since 1917, and today, over 1,370 monuments, tablets and markers dot the park landscape. Unfortunately, some of these are on former park lands or are not situated along the tour road.

In touring the park, it is helpful to know that the ancient Roman writer, architect, and engineer, Vitruvius, insisted that there were two points in all matters: the thing signified, and that which gave it its significance. The thing signified at Vicksburg – the spirit of the park-is the valor of the soldiers and sailors who struggled as participants in the Vicksburg campaign. The memorials and markers, through their information, art and architecture, signify, or honor, these combatants. The bronze, stone, and iron works were created to help preserve the spirit of duty, honor and country, and hopefully, this spirit will be experienced by the viewer.

The best way to appreciate the park and feel its spirit is to park in designated areas and spend some time on short walks. The reward will be that the works of art will reveal details and fuel emotions that are impossible to appreciate and feel from afar. As composer Daniel Gregory Mason observed; “Art of any profundity can be experienced only slowly, gradually, in leisurely contemplation.” You are, therefore, encouraged to savor your time amidst the heroes of the past.

Parker Hills, Brigadier General (Retired)
Clinton, Mississippi

Civil War New Orleans

Mark discusses New Orleans during the Civil War. In 1861, the City of New Orleans prepared for an imminent invasion by Union forces after Louisiana joined the Confederacy. As a crisis loomed, leadership, politics and military shortcomings become evident.

Ulysses S. Grant: Later War Years

Harry Laver, Professor of History at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, returns to review Ulysses S. Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign, his rise to General-in-Chief of the Union Army, the Chattanooga campaign and his campaigns in Virginia.

Grant and Fort Donelson

General Simon Bolivar Buckner was in command at Fort Donelson when Union forces were moving by land in conjunction with a flotilla of gunboats to besiege the Confederate stronghold. They had known each other at West Point, classes of 1844 (Buckner) and 1843 (Grant), and remained friends after the war.

General Gideon Pillow had been in charge of the Confederates who pushed Grant back to the river at Belmont the previous November. The Tennessean had his men hold off the approaching Union forces but did not take advantage of a break in their lines. He retired to the fort and took command at Fort Donelson when General John B. Floyd decided to make a hasty departure.

Floyd was the senior Confederate commander. As U.S. Secretary of State before secession, he had been under indictment in Washington for the questionable transfer of military stores to southern states before the hostilities broke out. He desperately wanted to avoid capture by the Federals for fear of charges for treason. Before this could happen, he loaded his two Virginia regiments and some artillery onto a steamboat and “skedaddled” upriver (to the southeast) to Nashville. He turned over command to Pillow who had once echoed Patrick Henry’s statement about a preference for death over loss of liberty. When the situation looked grim at Donelson, Pillow had a change of heart and sought “liberty” in a rowboat across the Cumberland river under cover of night. General Grant had a terse assessment of him as an adversary: Pillow “was no soldier, and possibly, did not possess the elements of one.”

On February 13, the Union continued to move into position and surround the fort. Both division commanders ordered attacks against the Confederate works without success. This gave the Confederates precious time to reinforce the garrison, increasing the ranks to about 15,000 to 17,000. They now had a force nearly equal or slightly larger than the attackers. Grant sent word to Fort Henry ordering W.H.L. Wallace to bring his brigade to Donelson. That night the wind shifted and the temperature began to drop. A heavy rain that soaked both armies, changed to sleet then freezing rain and finally a snowstorm that lasted all night. By morning, there were several inches of snow on the ground and the temperatures remained well below freezing.

There are reports that many of the soldiers who had marched in the balmy weather discarded their overcoats and blankets. They were unused to such mild days in February and enjoyed the false dose of spring that was concealing a wintry blast. They regretted their hasted the following day when they were exposed to the snow and unprotected from the icy winds.

In the Podcast, we discuss the terms of surrender, Grant’s relationship with Buckner and how the Northern press picked up on the new moniker. Civl War Trust has an informative feature on Fort Donelson including statistics and an overview at CWT.com.

Ulysses S. Grant: Early Career and Civil War

Mark and Harry Laver, Professor of History at the US Army Command and General Staff College will discuss Ulysses S. Grant’s early career and his leadership in the Western Theatre of the War up to the Vicksburg Campaign. This is Part 1 of a two-part podcast.

Grant at Belmont

In late 1861, Confederate General Leonidas Polk occupied Columbus in southwestern Kentucky on the Mississippi River. He broke the “neutrality” of the state and gave Union forces a reason to take aggressive action. Pro-union officers were actively recruiting Kentuckians to take up arms to support their cause and were breaking the neutrality in their own right. Just across the river, in far southeast Missouri, was the sparsely populated ferry landing of Belmont, where the Confederates had set up an outpost. Missouri’s U.S. military commander, General John Frémont sent Brigadier U.S. Grant into the region with 3,000 troops. Grant sent an initial force to overrun the Confederate encampment at Belmont. However, Polk learned of their approach and sent reinforcements who forced Grant’s men out and re-gain control of that section of the Mississippi River.

Grant’s plan was to capture the Confederate stronghold at Columbus, but first he had to take the Confederate garrison at Belmont. The 1,000 men that Polk had sent across the river to protect that bank of the river would be no match for Grant’s approaching numbers and Polk sent an additional 2,500 troops across the river to provide relief for his troops on the other side. He wanted to retain control of both sides of the Mississippi. Grant’s arriving force was able to push the Confederates back into a disorderly retreat and scatter them along the river. Discipline broke down within the Northern ranks, who prematurely began to celebrate their victory and engaging in wholesale looting of the Confederate camp.

General Charles Smith (who would also serve with Grant at Forts Henry and Donelson) began an advance from Paducah, Kentucky, just to the northeast. He was to make a feint and make Polk commit forces to pursue and keep them away from Belmont. Grant hoped that Polk would believe that Smith’s advance was the primary attack and that Belmont was the diversion. However, Polk recognized the move and dispatched additional troops to Belmont. Five Confederate regiments arrived as Grant was attempting to restore order and withdraw his men back to the river and move to a safer position. Grant himself narrowly escaped capture, but was able to get most of his force back to the boats, cross the river and retreat to Cairo, Illinois.

Union casulaties were 120 dead and 487 wounded or captured, while the Confederates lost 105 dead and 536 wounded or captured. Grant realized that maintaining order among the troops was of paramount importance. His men mistakenly felt that victory was theirs until surprised by the Confederate reinforcements. He had been facing General Gideon Pillow, who would later make his hasty retreat as Grant’s troops moved on Fort Donelson.

January Events in American History

The beginning of a new year has often seen major developments in U.S. history. Mark reviews some of the key events such as the Battle of New Orleans and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Spring Lineup

Mark gives a preview of some of the historical topics he’ll be discussing and the historians who will join him on History with Mark Bielski for the “Spring Semester.”

Civil War New Orleans: Prelude to Conflict

Mark takes a comparative look at developments leading up to the Civil War and the importance of the city of New Orleans to the Confederacy.

Civil War New Orleans: Prelude to Conflict

A comparative look at the economic differences between the Confederate states and those of the Union shows a staggering disparity. SEE COMPARATIVE CHART The Southern states had few advantages, except in certain agricultural areas and any semblance of parity here, arose from the Border States, primarily Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri. These three states were divided between Union and Confederacy in sympathies, and more concretely in supplying officers and men under arms. Nevertheless, they remained in the Union and are represented accordingly in terms of these resource statistics.

Wars are costly—certainly in terms of life and devastation of property—and since they are, those who wage them need money and goods to collect and trade. The chief cash crop for the South was cotton, to a lesser extent tobacco was significant but cotton was king. King Cotton was one of the Confederacy’s mainstays and sources of income. However, to collect payment for this white gold, the seller must be able to get it to market. The textile mills of New England and for that matter, Old England, became starved for raw cotton. And, because in 1860, the southern United States produced 90% of the world’s cotton, the mills became idle and workers went without wages. The conduit for getting cotton to markets outside the South was the Mississippi River. The wharves, warehouses and agents who facilitated getting the product to the manufacturers were in New Orleans.

At the beginning of the Civil War, New Orleans was the largest exporting port in the world. New York was the greater of the two city ports in general, but New Orleans sent the most product abroad. Chief among these, at least in terms of financial importance, was cotton. If the Union could interdict shipping to and from New Orleans, it would be a great, perhaps mortal, blow to the Confederate economy. If the Union could cripple the economy of the seceding states, it would win the economic war. If preserving the Union was the ultimate goal, then defeating the South economically was the first part of the equation. The second part, achieving military victory would follow. Another factor was the morale of the people, which came later, but military thought in the North focused on the tactics and strategies that would break the South’s economy and shatter its armies.

Click here for the Comparative Chart