Today in History, November 12, 1864:
The burning of Atlanta.
Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his army had taken Atlanta in September, and subsequently ordered the citizenry to evacuate the city. That order set off a firestorm of complaints and criticism from Confederate military and civilian leaders. Sherman stuck to his guns…the South could expend the resources to care for and secure their populace. Sherman’s supply lines stretched from Nashville, TN and were constantly threatened by Confederate army raids, so he knew he could not hold Atlanta for long.
But then, he didn’t want to. He stayed in Atlanta long enough to rest and build up supplies. On today’s date in 1864 he ordered the industrial district and anything that might prove useful to the enemy burned. The fires spread and eventually as much as 40% of the city went up in flames.
Sherman sent Gen. Thomas back towards Nashville to tie up the Confederate Army of the Tennessee led by Gen. John Bell Hood.
He then took his army east across Georgia, laying waste to the countryside in the same fashion that he had destroyed the city of Atlanta. This horrified the South, and Sherman’s acts are still points of contention. However if you read Sherman’s thoughts on his decisions, he was merely trying to end the war more quickly by reverting back to ancient principles of war. From times when armies fed themselves and armed themselves by living off of the land they were currently in. Sherman and his army took what they needed and destroyed what was left in order to deny the enemy its use. This was also intended to bring the war to the doorstep of the Southern citizens in the hope that they would press for the termination of hostilities.
By Christmas he would be able to send a telegram to President Lincoln: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”
Today in History, June 19, 1864:
The Battle off Cherbourg. In 1861 the screw sloop CSS Alabama was launched in England, which was just the beginning of the intrigue involving the Confederate cruiser that wreaked havoc on Union shipping until her demise on this date in 1864.
The British gov’t had ordered no ships be built or sold to the rebels, but the company that built the Alabama did so clandestinely. During the intervening years the Alabama, which had both steam engines and sails, circled the globe sinking Union merchant shipping (60 at least) and a Union warship.
She had put in at Cherbourg, France for much needed repairs, but was rebuffed. Before she could leave, the Union screw sloop USS Kearsarge arrived outside the harbor.
Capt. Charles Pickering and many other Union Captains had been searching for the infamous Alabama and Capt. Raphael Semmes for years. Semmes set out to engage the Kearsarge, firing the first shot. The two ships parried, but the Kearsarge had some advantages; powerful new “Dahlgren” guns and chains draped over her sides for protection. Within an hour the Kearsarge’s crew sent the Alabama to the bottom. Semmes escaped on a passing British ship to England with 41 of his crew.
Today in History, May 13, 1864:
Private William Christman of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, US Army, became the first soldier laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. He was laid to rest in the Lee’s rose garden near the Custis-Lee Mansion, or Arlington House.
Private Christman’s brother had preceded him in service to his country, leaving William to manage the family farm. William volunteered himself in part to help provide for his family. He became ill and died in a DC military hospital.
The mansion and the plantation it was on had belonged to George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Martha Washington, step-grandson of President Washington. He willed the property to his daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis. She in turn married a young US Army Lieutenant and West Point graduate, Robert E. Lee.
Lee served in the Mexican-American War and was respected as one of the best officers in the US Army. In fact he was offered command of the forces around Washington at the outset of the Civil War. He turned this offer down and instead left the Custis-Lee Mansion to go further south into Virginia and command Confederate forces.
As the war progressed the mansion was used as a Union Headquarters. A camp to assist former slaves was set up on the property. And finally, faced with mounting casualties in the war, the Union assumed the property as a cemetery for Union war dead.
It was actually after Private Christman was interred that the property was designated the Arlington National Cemetery. Today American soldiers from every war fought by the United States are buried and memorialized at Arlington, including the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
Today in History, August 5: 1864 – “Damn the Torpedoes! Full Speed Ahead!” New Orleans had been captured from the Confederacy in 1862, leaving Mobile Bay as the only source of foreign supplies for the South, via blockade runners (like the fictional Rhett Butler). On this date the Union Navy sent a fleet of ships led by ironclads into Mobile Bay, fighting a squadron of Confederate Ships and two “batteries” or forts with cannon, and a withering fire that almost immediately sank the USS Tecumseh, an ironclad. The Union fleet began to scatter, until the US Navy’s first Rear Admiral, David Glasgow Farragut inspired them on to victory with his now historic courageous command. By the way, “torpedoes” in 1864 were not propelled explosives as we know of them today, but what we know as mines. This would not be the only battle that would lead to Farragut’s lasting legacy with the US Navy.