Authors: Steven Woodworth
Semirebellious Maryland continued to be a problem. Near the end of the month, Union troops there arrested a man named John Merryman for recruiting for the Confederacy. Merryman’s lawyer filed for a writ of habeas corpus in federal circuit court. In those days U.S. Supreme Court justices doubled as circuit court judges, and this circuit belonged to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney of Maryland, who had already shown his proslavery colors in the 1857 case of
Dred Scott v. Sandford
, in which he had said that “no black man had any rights that a white man need respect.”
True to form, Taney on May 27 ordered Merryman released, claiming that only Congress, not the president, could suspend the writ of habeas corpus as Lincoln had recently done in areas crucial to communication between Washington, D.C., and the loyal states. In fact, the Constitution is silent on the issue of who may suspend the writ, noting only that it may indeed be suspended in times of rebellion or invasion. The officer in charge of Merryman refused Taney’s order, and Lincoln backed him up, following the example of Andrew Jackson by defying the chief justice’s decision. Lincoln explained his action to Congress some weeks later. Assuming for the sake of argument that his suspension of the writ had been a technical infraction of the law, Lincoln asked rhetorically, “Are all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated?” Lincoln believed the answer was no, and Congress agreed. It later ratified his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in selected areas as needed throughout the rest of the war. That sometimes included Maryland, where the Lincoln administration took a firm hand in suppressing secessionism by occasionally locking up some of its most vocal adherents for a month or two.
Simultaneous with Maryland’s flirtation with rebellion, the state of Missouri faced a similar crisis. Recently elected Governor Claiborne Jackson was dedicated to the cause of slavery and had led Border Ruffians into Kansas during that territory’s troubles in the 1850s. He directed secessionist state militia in capturing the federal arsenal at Liberty, Missouri, on April 20, the day after the Baltimore riot. With his newly enhanced firepower, Claiborne made plans to take the much larger U.S. arsenal at St. Louis. To improve his chances still further, he requested cannon from Jefferson Davis, who obligingly dispatched several that Louisiana Rebels had plundered from the U.S. arsenal at Baton Rouge, shipped in crates labeled “Marble.”
Defending the arsenal was a fiery, diminutive captain of the regular army named Nathaniel Lyon. Alerted to the danger by Unionist Missouri politician Frank Blair, Lyon reconnoitered a camp of some of the secessionist militia outside St. Louis disguised as Blair’s mother-in-law, complete with a dress and a veil to hide his brushy, red beard. Satisfied of the secessionists’ hostile intent, Lyon preempted them, and on May 10 surrounded their camp with Union-loyal, antislavery German American militia regiments from the St. Louis area as well as a few U.S. Army regulars. The secessionists, about seven hundred in number, surrendered without a fight, but as the Union troops marched their prisoners away, a secessionist mob attacked, hurling bricks and firing pistols. In the ensuing riot, four soldiers and about twenty-four civilians were killed. More died in further clashes the following day.
Many Missourians had previously been at best tepid Unionists, and the news that German troops in Federal uniforms had shot down civilians in the streets of St. Louis, even if those civilians had been in the act of rioting, outraged public opinion and brought new recruits to Jackson’s secessionist militia. The state legislature also threw its support to the governor. On June 11 Jackson and the commander of his secessionist militia, General Sterling Price, who had commanded a regiment of Missouri volunteers during the Mexican War, met with Lyon and Blair at the Planters’ House Hotel in St. Louis to discuss restoring peace to the state. By this time, Lincoln had promoted Lyon to brigadier general and given him command of all U.S. troops in Missouri. Jackson and Price demanded that Lyon withdraw all Federal troops from the state, leaving it to the secessionists, who said it would then be neutral. The suggestion outraged Lyon, who said he would see every Missourian dead before he would accept any such agreement. “This means war,” growled the fiery Lyon before stalking out of the room. Jackson and Price returned to Jefferson City, where the governor issued a call for fifty thousand volunteers to oppose Lyon. He did not get nearly that many, and he and the secessionist legislature soon found themselves fleeing toward the southwestern corner of the state as Lyon advanced with his troops from St. Louis.
Kentucky presented a different case entirely. Like Maryland and Missouri, it was a slave state with strong economic ties to the North and a deeply divided population. Also like the other border states, it wished to remain neutral. Unlike them, Kentucky got the chance to do so, at least for a time. Both presidents, Lincoln and Davis, had been born in Kentucky, scarcely one hundred miles apart, but they need not have been Kentucky natives to have understood the political importance of the state. As Lincoln explained the situation that fall, “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game. Kentucky gone, we can not hold Missouri, nor, as I think, Maryland. These all against us, and the job on our hands is too large for us. We would as well consent to separation at once, including the surrender of this capitol”—meaning Washington, D.C.
Neither side could afford to offend Kentuckians by flouting their state’s announced neutrality. Both scrupulously kept their troops out of Kentucky, though they quietly slipped weapons across the border to equip sympathetic militia within the state and maintained training camps just outside its borders, Union to the north and Confederate to the south, for organizing Kentuckians willing to leave their state and enlist on one side or the other. As some observers pointed out at the time, neutrality amounted to secession. The situation was bizarre and could hardly be expected to last, but for the time being it was a tremendous boon to the Confederacy. At the same time that a inviolably neutral Kentucky provided an impenetrable shield for the heartland of the Confederacy against Union invasion, it also provided a conduit for a very valuable trade with the North, bringing even weapons and ammunition into the industrially weak Confederacy. Still, Lincoln was willing to tolerate it for the time being rather than run the risk of alienating Kentuckians.
VIRGINIA AND ITS PLACE WITHIN THE WAR
Despite the bloodshed in various places and the gathering of newly recruited troops at a number of points on either side of what had become a long, hostile boundary between the Union and the Confederacy, much of America looked for the decisive action to occur in Virginia. Throughout the war, a large segment of the population, the press, and, to a certain extent, both governments showed a fixation with Virginia out of proportion to its importance to the outcome of the conflict. With Maryland secessionists held in check both by the firm hand of the federal government and by its own sizable Unionist population, especially in its western counties, Virginia was the frontline state of the Confederacy. In the older, better-known, and more populous eastern part of the nation, Virginia held the boundary between the Union and the Confederacy. It was the part of the war closest to the major population centers and the major media markets.
The Virginia theater of the war also came to include, by the end of May, the capitals of the two rival governments within a hundred miles of each other. Impressed with both the importance and the prestige of Virginia, the Confederate congress voted on May 20 to accept Virginia’s invitation and move its capital from Montgomery to Richmond. Virginia was the state of Madison, Jefferson, and, most of all, Washington, whom the Confederates assumed would have favored their cause and whose image, mounted on horseback and gesturing, presumably to his troops, they placed on their national seal. Locating the capital in Richmond was a bid to identify with all of Virginia’s past greatness. It was also an assurance to the Virginians that the Confederacy would make every effort to defend their state.
And there were very genuine reasons for the Confederacy to defend Virginia. It was now one of the Confederacy’s most populous states, and it contained the largest share of the South’s industry. The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond was the only mill in the Confederacy that could make a railroad locomotive and one of a very few that could make a heavy cannon. Virginia’s accession greatly strengthened the Confederacy, and the state’s loss would be a severe blow. Moving the national capital to Richmond would both reassure Virginians and place the South’s foremost military hero, President Jefferson Davis, immediately adjacent to the presumed scene of the most important fighting.
Yet not all Virginians were enthusiastic about the new Confederacy. Every southern state contained Unionists, but Virginia held an unusually large number, and they were concentrated in the state’s northwestern counties, not far from Pennsylvania and Ohio. These areas had economic ties to the northern states and, more important, contained few slaves. Slaves made up about one-tenth the percentage of the population (4 percent) in northwestern Virginia that they did in the South as a whole (about 40 percent). Many citizens of the northwestern counties, west of the Allegheny Mountains, felt that their region had always been treated as the redheaded stepchild by the state government in Richmond, paying more than its fair share of taxes and receiving less than its fair share of state spending. When it came to being dragged into a rebellion to make the continent permanently safe for slavery, the northwesterners were ready to draw the line.
With the northwestern counties of Virginia filled with a mostly Union-loyal population ready to throw off the yoke of the tidewater and piedmont slaveholding aristocracy, the region was ripe for the arrival of Federal troops looking to restore loyal government in the region. Washington had no troops to send, but Ohio did. Like several other governors, Ohio’s William Dennison had found himself with more recruits than the state’s quota under Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand men. He wisely enlisted them anyway and so had them on hand to deal with the opportunity developing just beyond his state’s southeastern boundary.
To command them he snagged a highly reputed professional officer. Born in Philadelphia in 1826, George B. McClellan had received special dispensation to enroll in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point prior to his sixteenth birthday. Graduating second in the class of 1846, McClellan had served as an engineer officer in the Mexican War and then in the peacetime army before resigning in 1857 to take up a career as a railroad executive. He had been considered one of the brightest of the rising young officers within the army, and by 1861 he was president of the Ohio and Mississippi Railroad.
On the issue of slavery, McClellan more or less agreed with the Confederates, but he rejected secession and was disturbed when the Confederates had fired on Fort Sumter. Deciding to reenter the military, McClellan set out for Pennsylvania to offer his services to its governor. Dennison was one of several governors seeking his services and got him to stop by Columbus and give some advice on the organizing of Ohio’s troops. By April 23, he was commanding general of the state’s militia, and on May 3, Lincoln promoted him to major general, making him one of the most senior generals in the army, and assigned him to command the Department of the Ohio, comprising the states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
McClellan’s first assignment was to liberate the Unionist citizens of northwestern Virginia and protect the vital Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, a strategic link between Washington and the Midwest, as it ran through that region. Leading an army of Ohioans and Indianans, McClellan advanced in early June through Grafton toward a Rebel force at Philippi. The Confederates retreated so rapidly in the face of McClellan’s advance that northern newspapers derisively christened the event “the Philippi Races.”
On July 11 McClellan’s troops met the Confederates in battle at Rich Mountain. In what was meant to be a pincers movement, McClellan sent Brigadier General William S. Rosecrans with a large brigade to strike the Rebels in the rear, on which McClellan would attack with the rest of his force in front. When the moment came, however, McClellan convinced himself that the Confederates badly outnumbered him when, in fact, the reverse was the case. Hesitating, he left Rosecrans to fight the battle alone. Rosecrans won anyway, capturing numerous Confederates and sending the others off in headlong retreat. Union forces followed up, and on July 13 in a small rearguard action at Corrick’s Ford, Confederate Brigadier General Robert S. Garnett fell, the first general on either side to die in the war.
Meanwhile, delegates from the twenty-five northwestern counties of Virginia had met in convention at Wheeling in May. Later that month in the formal secession referendum called by the Virginia secession convention, the northwestern counties voted almost two to one against secession. Early in June a second convention met in Wheeling, denounced secession, and declared the offices of all secessionist state officials to be vacant. In their place, the second Wheeling convention set up a Union-loyal government for the state of Virginia, headed by Francis H. Pierpont as governor. Though the new government claimed rightful sovereignty over all of Virginia, its action, coupled with McClellan’s successful campaign, represented the first steps in the eventual separation of trans-Allegheny Virginia into a new state of West Virginia, a process that would not be formally complete until 1863.
While the North might take satisfaction from its success in trans-Allegheny Virginia, all eyes were turned anxiously on the eastern part of the state, where Washington and Richmond confronted each other across scarcely one hundred miles of piedmont and tidewater Virginia. A first, tentative and halting Union effort in eastern Virginia occurred in early June. When Virginia had seceded, Union forces had retained control of Fort Monroe at the tip of the peninsula formed by the broad estuaries of the York and James rivers where they emptied into Chesapeake Bay. From that base, a small Union column of about 3,500 men under the command of Benjamin Butler advanced northwestward, up the peninsula, in the direction of Richmond. On June 10, the day before the second Wheeling convention gathered four hundred miles to the northwest, Butler’s men encountered the Rebels, dug in behind Brick Kiln Creek near Big Bethel Church about fourteen miles from Fort Monroe and seventy from Richmond. The Federals immediately attacked. The Fifth New York Regiment, colorfully dressed in the uniforms of Algerian Zouaves (colonial units of the French army), complete with baggy red pants, moved toward the Rebel flank. The Seventh New York, filled with the scions of Gotham’s social elite, advanced in the center, then became confused, turned about, and fired into the ranks of the Third New York, coming up in support. Both regiments wore the gray uniforms then common among militia throughout the country. The Seventh, despite its own appearance, had become convinced that the Third was in fact a Confederate regiment that had gotten behind it.