Today in History, August 1: 1864 – Over the objections of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, who thought he was too young for the command of an army, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant names Gen. Phillip Sheridan as commander of the Army of the Shenandoah. Throughout the war, each time the Union began to encroach on the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia, the South would send an army through the Shenandoah Valley to threaten Washington, DC, forcing the Union to protect it’s own capitol. Grant didn’t fall for this, however as he lay siege to Petersburg, which protected Richmond. The Confederacy sent Gen. Jubal Early through the Valley to threaten DC. The Shenandoah was not only the route north for the Confederate armies, it was the “bread basket” for the south, much as the midwest is for the country now. Grant sent Sheridan to command a new Valley of the Shenandoah, and ordered him, “The people should be informed that so long as an army can subsist among them recurrences of these raids must be expected, and we are determined to stop them at all hazards. … Give the enemy no rest … Do all the damage to railroads and crops you can. Carry off stock of all descriptions, and negroes, so as to prevent further planting. If the war is to last another year, we want the Shenandoah Valley to remain a barren waste.” The Confederates called Sheridan’s campaign “The Burning”, precursor to the scorched earth campaign that Sherman enforced in Georgia. Sheridan not only drove Early from the valley, but lay waste to all resources in the Shenandoah, depriving the South of the much needed resources. Lincoln, Stanton, and Grant sang his praises, as did the nation.
Today in History, June 28: 1862 – Union soldiers inadvertently burn the White House. No, not that White House. In fact, the Executive Mansion which housed the President wasn’t known by that name until 1902 when President Theodore Roosevelt renamed it.
Another difference between these “White Houses”, is that George Washington never resided in the Presidential Mansion along the Potomac. His successor, John Adams was the first President to live there. But he courted and married the widow Martha Custis at and near the White House on the Pamunkey River.
One of General Washington’s officers was Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. His son, Robert E. Lee, would marry Martha Custis-Washington’s granddaughter, Mary. Together they would live in Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac…and the Executive Mansion. When the Civil War began, Robert E. Lee chose to support “his country”, Virginia; which also meant the Confederacy. As a result he and his family had to leave Arlington House and move to one of their more southern Virginia properties…the White House on the Pamunkey.
As the Union dead mounted, Union Secretary of War Edwin Stanton ordered the area around Arlington House to be used as a cemetery so that Lee could never again live there. Today it is Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1862 during the Seven Day’s Battles, Union forces pushed the Confederates back past Lee’s family’s new home at White House Landing, using it as a major supply base.
Before she fled further south from yet another home, Mary Lee left a message on the door of the residence, “Northern soldiers, who profess to reverence Washington, forbear to desecrate the house of his first married life, the property of his wife, now owned by her descendants.” Union soldiers agreed. General George McClellan ordered a guard to posted around the house to prevent looting or vandalism.
McClellan took a lot of heat from the press and DC for the protection of General Washington’s one-time home. It should be used as a hospital for Union soldiers! Even though it had but six rooms.
As was frequent in the Civil War, the lines moved back north after moving south. And on this date in 1862 Confederates took White House Landing back. As the Union Army fled, McClellan ordered all supplies and outbuildings burned to prevent their use by the Confederates…with the exception of the White House, it was to be spared.
As often happens in war, orders from the top rarely get carried out to the letter. The White House was burned to the ground.
Today in History, February 19: 1859 – New York Congressman Daniel E. Sickles is acquitted of murder using a temporary insanity defense, the first time this defense was used in US courts. Sickles was quite a character…he had been censored by Congress more than once, most prominently for having brought a known prostitute into the House chamber, and then taking her to England and introducing her to Queen Victoria while his wife was at home pregnant. Despite this, he was enraged when his wife confessed to him that she had been carrying on an affair with the District Attorney for the District of Columbia, Phillip Barton Key II (Francis Scott Key’s son…you know..the Star Spangled Banner author). Sickles confronted Key in Lafayette Square, across the street from the Executive Mansion (White House) and shot him dead. Sickles then went to the Attorney General’s home, turned himself in and confessed. Future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton defended Sickles at his trial, painting the wife as a cheating harlot, and securing Sickles’ acquittal. Sickles went back to his wife, which enraged his supporters much more than the murder. When the Civil War began, Sickles used his influence to recruit NY volunteers and gain a political generalship, something that was possible in those days. With no military experience he actually made a good accounting of himself in several battles. Ironically, his most controversial act was yet to come. At the pivotal Battle of Gettysburg, his III Corps was assigned a portion of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. On his own he decided to move his unit forward to higher ground, which thinned his lines and left a gap in the Union lines, and blatantly ignored the orders of the commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Meade. Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corps attacked and decimated Sickles’ command, costing Sickles his leg. The controversy amongst historians is whether Sickles sacrifice of his Corps helped or hurt the Union’s chances of victory. In the end the Union could count Gettysburg as a victory, but in my humble opinion, the ambitious Sickles had little to do with it. He put it at risk. In his later years Sickles served as Minister to Spain (continuing his womanizing there) and returned to the legislature. He spent much effort in creating the Gettysburg National Military Park and in denigrating Gen. Meade, while promoting himself as the true reason for the victory at Gettysburg. After lobbying for 34 years, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the battle. Perhaps most telling is the fact that there are memorials to almost all of the generals involved in the battle at the Park, but not for Sickles. Good or bad, between his killing of Francis Scott Key’s son, his pioneering use of the insanity defense, and his military career, Sickles’ story is fascinating.