The End of an Era – The Age of Sail was Over

Today in History, March 9, 1862:

The Battle of Hampton Roads.

Few are able to be part of a truly history changing event.

When the Civil War began, the Union abandoned the Naval Base at Norfolk, Virginia, burning everything they could in retreat.

The Confederacy took the base, and raised the sunken Union USS Merrimack. They then rebuilt her into the ironclad CSS Virginia.

The Union Navy placed an embargo on all Southern ports, including the entrance to the Southern capitol of Richmond. The South attempted to break this embargo with their new ironclad ship, sinking two Union wooden “ships of the line” in the process.

The Virginia returned to base for the night, then returned to finish off the last major embargo ship on 9 March, 1862.

She was confronted by the Union version of the ironclad…the USS Monitor. The two new iron ships battered away at each other for over three hours without seriously damaging each other, and then withdrew.

The Virginia would be scuttled at her base as the Union advanced…the Monitor would be lost at sea.

But more importantly….navies worldwide…Britain, France, Spain, the Far East, watched and realized that their wooden navies had suddenly become obsolete.


Today in History, April 9, 1865:

After years of foiling every move the Union made, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had finally been run to ground. Several Yankee Generals had been bested by him, but he had finally met his match…not tactically, but in determination, by Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

At Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia, Lee, his army starving and with nowhere else to run, in spite of the fact that he would “rather die a thousand deaths”, agreed to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant.

Lee arrived in his best uniform; Grant, typically, arrived in a muddy private’s uniform. Grant offered terms that included Confederate officers keeping their horses and sidearms, enlisted men keeping their horses so that they could farm their land, as long as they agreed to abide by their paroles and obey the laws of the land. Lee was very appreciative of these terms, saying they would be helpful to his army, men he loved.

As Lee mounted his horse and left the site of the surrender, Union soldiers began to cheer. Grant quickly silenced them, reminding them that the Confederates were once again their countrymen.

The surrender document was signed in the home of Wilmer McLean. Ironically, in the first battle of the war, First Bull Run, or First Manassas if you are from the South, Confederate Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard’s headquarters were in McLean’s home in Manassas, where cannon shot destroyed part of the house. McLean moved south to Appomattox Courthouse to keep his family safe. So, as is said, the Civil War began in Wilmer McLean’s front yard, and ended in his parlor.

McLean’s home was almost completely stripped of furniture by Union officers seeking momentos of the occasion.

Lee was given the opportunity by Grant to allow one of his subordinates to accept the surrender…to avoid humiliation. Lee refused…his FATHER, Light Horse Harry Lee, had been with Washington at Yorktown and witnessed the ungentlemanly act of British Gen. Lord Cornwallis sending a subordinate to surrender his sword to Washington. Lee refused to dishonor his family name by repeating the act. Grant did not require Lee to surrender his sword, but Lee was the man that represented his army at Appomattox Courthouse. Both gentlemen, North and South, maintained their honor.

Victory and Assassination

Today in History, April 4: 1865:

150 years ago today. President Lincoln enters Richmond, the Confederate Capitol. Lincoln had been at City Point when informed that Richmond had been taken the day before by Union Army forces.

He immediately sailed on the USS Malvern, Flag Officer David Dixon Porter’s flagship for Richmond. After he disembarked, he was initially escorted through crowds by a contingent of sailors, who were very relieved when they were met by a group of Union Cavalry to assist in escorting the President to the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Many former slaves attempted to pay homage to Lincoln, who would not allow it. Onlookers watched from the windows and street corners.

At Davis’ house, Lincoln sat in Davis’ chair, then toured the house.

When later asked by Union Gen. Weitzel how the conquered rebels should be treated, Lincoln indicated that he would not give an order in that regard, but that his advice would be to, “Let them up easy….let them up easy”.

As for the nervous sailors and cavalrymen that escorted him? As it turns out, Lincoln was safer in the Confederate capitol that his own. He had only ten days until he would be assassinated.

103 years later to the day, another man dedicated to civil rights and the advancement of justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

April is a Historic month with many stories to tell.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory 

Today in History, September 18: 1862 – Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory…again and for the last time. The Battle of Antietam in Maryland had drawn to a close the previous day. The bloodiest single day battle in American history, it can’t be said that either side “won” the battle, but it was a tactical victory for the Union. Lee had to retreat back to Virginia, Lincoln was able to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, and European powers decided not to recognize the Confederacy as a result. And yet, Union Major General George B. McClellan managed to let go of an advantage that could have ended the war much earlier, saving countless lives….

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, arguably the most fierce force the South had at it’s disposal, 43,000 strong, was exhausted, demoralized, and had it’s back to the Potomac River. McClellan, who had 50,000+ in his Union army, a third of which (the portion under his immediate control) had not engaged in the battle, and with thousands of fresh reinforcements arriving by the hour, refused to engage with Lee, allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape across the Potomac. He then refused for over a month to give chase. McClellan had an incredible ego, but it was not commensurate with his abilities. He had a persistent knack for overestimating his enemies. He assumed that Lee had 100,000 troops, which was a ridiculous assumption…he had done this several times in his career…if he’d had a million troops, he would have said his enemy had five. President Lincoln and Chief of Staff Henry Halleck implored McClellan repeatedly to use the army he commanded, but he made excuse after excuse and refused. Finally, on November 9th, Lincoln fired him for the final time. McClellan would run against the President in ’64 on a platform calling for an end to the war without achieving victory (a platform he reportedly denounced.)

The Right Man for the Job

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.

The Importance of Petersburg, VA…in the Revolutionary War

Today in History, April 24: 1781 – British General William Phillips and British General Benedict Arnold, traitor formerly of the American Continental Army, begin a march on Petersburg, Virginia with 2,500 troops. The city was defended by 1,000 scantly trained militia led by Major General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, who had trained General Washington’s soldiers at Valley Forge and General Peter Muhlenberg. Phillips and Arnold were sent to Virginia, which had been left mostly alone previously, to divert Washington’s attention from offenses in the north. von Steuben and Muhlenberg knew they could not prevail with their much smaller, poorly trained forces, so they retreated from the city, setting up defenses in surrounding cities until they could be joined by Continental regulars. What was supposed to lead to American defeat actually were the first steps in the south that would lead to the defeat of the British.

How Can I Draw My Sword Upon Virginia?

Today in History, April 20: 1861 – “Mr. Blair, I look upon secession as anarchy. If I owned the four millions of slaves in the South I would sacrifice them all to the Union; but how can I draw my sword upon Virginia, my native state?” Robert E. Lee was the son of a Revolutionary War hero (Light Horse Harry Lee). He was a graduate of West Point, and would serve as superintendent of the USMA (West Point). He was a hero of the Mexican-American War, and was respected as the best officer, the best engineer, in the US Army. The Administration offered him the command of the defenses around Washington, but he turned it down, he could not raise his sword against his “country” of Virginia. On this date, Lee resigned his commission in the US Army and went home, after 32 years of service to the US Army. 3 days later he would accept a command in the Virginia militia, surprising even his family. Lee is such an enigma. He was a dedicated servant to his country, but served with the same dedication to the Confederacy. After the war, he acted as a gentleman in efforts to bring the nation back together. Whether we approve of his decisions or not, we can only see Robert E. Lee as an American.