Civil War Wednesday: Wilson’s Raid

Major General James H. Wilson, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06208

Major General James H. Wilson, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06208

Continuing to press on all military fronts, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant sanctioned a two-part operation in Alabama. Major General Edward Canby’s force targeted Mobile, while Major General James H. Wilson would lead what resulted in the largest cavalry raid during the war. Mounting 13,500 troopers, Wilson set out on March 22, 1865, for his primary target – Selma. Home to an arsenal and armory, and various warehouses storing matériel, Selma provided an irresistible target for the Northern troops bent on destroying the South’s resources for continuing the war.

Attempting to thwart Wilson’s advancing horsemen, Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, with 5,000 cavalry troops, prepared to meet the superior numbers riding toward their position from three different directions. On March 31, Wilson’s troopers bested Forrest at Montevallo, and the victors destroyed the ironworks there before riding in the direction of Selma. Engaging Forrest and company near Selma on April 2, the Federals fought through Southern artillery to take the city. Forrest managed to escape, but Wilson’s riders captured 2,700 of his men.[1] The Federals continued their trek across Alabama, destroying anything of military value in their path. After several days in the saddle, the bluecoats arrived outside Girard (present-day Phenix City, Alabama), where the Confederates had constructed a series of earthworks protecting the bridge crossings into Columbus, Georgia.

Launching one of the war’s rare nighttime attacks, Wilson’s troopers struck during the cover of darkness. Desperate fighting followed; eventually, the Confederates fell back across the Chattahoochee River into Columbus, and the Federals took possession of the Franklin Street Bridge.[2] Major General Howell Cobb, in command of the defense of Columbus, traveled to Macon to rally forces for protecting the city. Wilson’s troopers burned thousands of cotton bales in Columbus, and destroyed the iron works and naval yard. Confederates set fire to the CSS Jackson, which still readied for combat during Wilson’s attack, and scuttled the CSS Chattahoochee.

Arriving outside Macon on April 20 – where news of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender had just come in – the Federals repulsed Southern troops holding an outer defense line. Soon, Cobb sent word to Wilson asking for a truce pending word from General Joseph E. Johnston and Major General William T. Sherman’s actions in North Carolina. Refusing to accept Cobb’s request, Wilson ordered his men to continue into Macon, where the officials surrendered the city.[3] As the Macon Telegraph and Messenger later reported during the tenth anniversary of the event, “General Cobb and other officers here now regarded the war as closed.” Indeed, Wilson’s Raid marked the last significant military action of the war on Georgia soil.

[1] National Park Service, Battle of Selma, http://www.nps.gov/abpp/battles/al007.htm (accessed March 30, 2015).

[2] Charles A. Misulia, Columbus, Georgia, 1865: The Last True Battle of the Civil War (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010), 156.

[3] Ibid., 215.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.

Civil War Wednesday: Major General John B. Gordon

        Major General John B. Gordon, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06013

Major General John B. Gordon, Library of Congress LC-DIG-cwpb-06013

Approaching ten months of siege along the Richmond to Petersburg front in Virginia, General Robert E. Lee continued to seek a way to break the Federal lines opposing his Army of Northern Virginia. As the final days of March loomed, he turned to Major General John B. Gordon, a native of Upson County, Georgia, to develop a plan of attack. Gordon, a veteran of the fighting in the eastern theater, spent several days reconnoitering the various segments of Lieutenant General U.S. Grant’s defenses. He decided upon an area east of Petersburg as the point closest to the Confederate trenches; one across from a Federal position, which did not have as many obstacles guarding the approach as elsewhere along the front.

Meeting with Lee, Gordon explained his plan for capturing Fort Stedman. Lee queried his subordinate on how he would first get through their own obstacles just outside the trenches, and then asked Gordon how he expected to gain entry into the fort. Gordon proceeded to detail his design for a small element of his force to cut through the Southern defense system, under cover of darkness. Once they gained an opening, a squad of 50 soldiers carrying axes instead of rifles, would rapidly advance on Fort Stedman, break the log barriers, and create a passageway for the soldiers charging behind them.[1] Lee gave his approval, and Gordon readied his troops for the assault. During the early-morning hours of March 25, 1865, the initial stages of the attack unfolded like clockwork as the Confederates launched their advance from Colquitt’s Salient. Once clear of their own lines, Gordon could hear his butternut lumberjacks breaking the barriers at Fort Stedman. Soon, Gordon and his soldiers had possession of the fort and three adjoining batteries.

Fort Stedman, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-68634

Fort Stedman, Library of Congress LC-USZ62-68634

Brightening skies and a problem with guides who supposedly knew the area well, but did not, caused the next stage of Gordon’s plan to come unraveled. Officers leading three different units, each charged with capturing the same number of fortifications behind Stedman, encountered difficulty locating the positions. The delay afforded the Federals time to bring up reinforcements and open fire on the stationary Confederate troops. Lee, watching from a nearby observation point, ordered Gordon to withdraw from Fort Stedman.

Marking Lee’s final offensive action along the Richmond-Petersburg front, the failure to break through the Federal line at Fort Stedman, and then attack Grant’s forces from the rear, signaled, as Gordon remarked, “…the expiring struggle of the Confederate giant, whose strength was nearly exhausted and whose limbs were heavily shackled by the most onerous conditions.”[2]

Returning to his native Georgia after the war, Gordon served two terms in the U.S. Senate, and as governor from 1886-1890. The veteran lived until the age of 72, passing on January 9, 1904 in Miami.[3] Gordon rests in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.

[1] John B. Gordon, Reminiscences of the Civil War (Alexandria, Va: Time-Life Books, 1981), 401–2.

[2] Ibid., 412.

[3] John H. Eicher and David J. Eicher, Civil War High Commands (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2001), 260.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.

Civil War Wednesday: Oakland Cemetery

1

Formed as the Atlanta Cemetery in 1850, today’s Oakland Cemetery stretches across 48 acres of beautiful grounds within sight of modern Atlanta. Numbering among the 70,000 interred at Oakland, 6,900 Confederate soldiers and others who held prominent positions during the Civil War.[1] Recently, this writer spent the better part of an afternoon strolling through the grounds of Oakland. Each step forward carries one back in time, affording a connection with the past, and providing a moment – amid the tranquil settings – to reflect upon the nineteenth-century conflict, which tore the nation apart.

Leaving Big Shanty in April 1862, the Andrews Raiders stole the locomotive General, and proceeded northward in hopes of disrupting Confederate supply lines in the region. James Andrews, the leader of the party, did not count on a determined individual who refused to just watch his beloved engine steam away. William Fuller, the conductor, began chasing the General on foot. Two of his crew, Jeff Cain and Anthony Murphy joined him in pursuit. Years later, on their respective passing, all three of these men received internment in Oakland, and a historical marker identifies a nearby spot, where seven of the raiders stretched a rope in June 1862.

3Fighting for possession of Atlanta intensified during July 1864, as Major General William T. Sherman’s forces attempted to capture the city; standing in their way, the Army of Tennessee under the command of General John Bell Hood. During the July 22 Battle of Atlanta/Bald Hill, Hood watched his troops engage from the home of James Williams. The site, now within the confines of Oakland, contains a Georgia historic marker.

Healing, in the form of remembrance, took place in many towns across the country, and Atlanta proved no exception. The Ladies Memorial Association worked tirelessly to raise funds to commission the design and sculpting of the Confederate Monument, which they dedicated in early 1874; 20 years later, the ladies arranged for the “Lion of Atlanta” to guard the fallen. During the war, many of the Federal soldiers killed during the Atlanta Campaign received internment in the cemetery. After the war, most of them found their final resting place at the National Cemetery in Chattanooga. Today, 16 of the boys in blue remain at Oakland, each providing a lasting reminder of the war’s cost, both North and South.

Lion of Atlanta

Lion of Atlanta

Several prominent politicians, civilians, and military leaders from the Civil War era call Oakland home. The original six acre section of the cemetery contains the gravesites of Atlanta’s wartime mayor, James Calhoun, along with diarist Carrie Berry.

Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederate States of America, briefly rested in the Cotting-Burke vault after his death in 1883. Eventually, he made his way home to Crawfordville.

One of Georgia’s most famous officers, Major General John Brown Gordon, fought in many eastern theater battles with General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. After the war, Gordon served his beloved state as a U.S. Senator and as governor.

The Confederate Memorial Grounds also contain the burial sites of Brigadier General Alfred Iverson and Major General Ambrose Wright.

Whenever your Civil War trails lead to Atlanta, visit historic Oakland Cemetery and walk the grounds of the past beneath the shadows of today. For more information, please visit http://www.oaklandcemetery.com.

[1] Ren Davis and Helen Davis, Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery: An Illustrated History and Guide (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 4.

All photos courtesy of the author.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.

Civil War Wednesday: Blackshear

State historic marker at site, photo courtesy of the author

State historic marker at site, photo courtesy of the author

“After leaving the cars we were marched off into the pine woods, by the side of a considerable stream, and told that this was to be our camp.”[1] This Federal prisoner wrote of his new home in Pierce County, Georgia – Camp Blackshear. Major General William T. Sherman’s force continued to advance across the interior of Georgia on their way to Savannah, and Confederate officials realized they must relocate the prisoners held at Millen’s Camp Lawton before advance elements of Sherman’s troops arrived. On November 22, 1864, prisoners at Lawton began boarding trains bound for alternate holding facilities; eventually, 5,000 men traveled westward on the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad.

Colonel Henry Forno, the commander at Lawton, received orders to ready a new prison site in Blackshear. Pierce County, located in the southeastern part of the state, not far from the Florida line, seemed a logical location. The proximity to the railroad, and the remoteness of the region, should prevent Sherman’s forces from liberating any prisoners held there. At least one prisoner concurred with Forno’s choice, noting in his diary, “Blackshear is an out of the way place, and shouldn’t think the Yankee army would ever find us here.”[2]

Billy_and_Dick_from_Andersonville_Prison-page-001-1

Prisoner medal from Ralph Orr Bates, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House

Many period sources indicate the holding area at Blackshear lacked stockades like the prisoners had left behind, first at Andersonville, and later at Camp Lawton. Penciling an entry into his diary shortly after arriving in Blackshear, Sergeant John Ransom with the 9th Michigan Cavalry wrote of the grounds surrounding him and the other prisoners, “There is no wall or anything around us here, only guards. Encamped right in the open air.”[3] Offering a different perspective, another prisoner indicated the area “…was completely commanded by military earthworks, with mounted cannon, and was guarded by seven hundred Confederate soldiers.”[4] Regardless of the actual condition of the prison, soon after arriving, Forno began making preparations for another facility in Thomasville, while relocating some of the prisoners from Blackshear to Savannah.

Guards from the Second and Fourth Regiments in the Georgia Reserves continued to keep watch over the 2,500 prisoners remaining at Blackshear, looking on as the Federals constructed shanties to protect themselves from the elements. After Sherman captured Savannah on December 21, 1864, and later began his Carolinas Campaign, the prisoners at Blackshear found themselves on the move once again. Some returned to Andersonville, and others went to Thomasville, Millen, or Florence, South Carolina.[5]

Blackshear prison site, photo courtesy of the author

Blackshear prison site, photo courtesy of the author

Given the horrible environments found in many overcrowded prisons during the Civil War – both North and South – an observation from a soldier in the 4th Vermont Infantry tells of better conditions in Pierce County. “Blackshear has always seemed like an oasis in the memory of those perilous times. Here we were removed from all apparent danger and the guards were more humane.”[6] Today, the Pierce County Historical and Genealogical Society works to protect, preserve, and interpret this site. Visit www.civilwarblackshearga.com to learn more!

[1] John McElroy, Andersonville, a Story of Rebel Military Prisons (1879; repr., No. Scituate, MA: Digital Scanning, 1999), 32.

[2] John L. Ransom, Andersonville Diary; Escape, and List of Dead, with Name, Company, Regiment, Date of Death and Number of Grave in Cemetery, google books ed. (Auburn, NY: John Ransom, 1881), 131.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ralph Orr Bates, Billy and Dick: From Andersonville Prison to the White House, google books ed. (Santa Cruz, CA: Sentinel Publishing Company, 1910), 24.

[5] John W. Guss, The American Civil War in Blackshear, Georgia: The Story of a Prison Camp, brochure. (Blackshear, GA: Pierce County Historical Society, 1998).

[6] Francis J. Hosmer, A Glimpse of Andersonville and Other Writings, google books ed. (Springfield, MA: Loring & Axtell, 1896), 47.

MikeMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.

Civil War Wednesday: Georgia’s Old Reliable

Lieutenant General William Hardee, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-7972

Lieutenant General William Hardee, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-7972

Lieutenant General William J. Hardee, born in Savannah in 1815, graduated from the United States Military Academy, served in the Mexican-American War, and authored a book on military tactics, which both sides consulted during the American Civil War. His manuscript – Rifle and Light Infantry Tactics for the Exercise and Maneuvers of Troops When Acting as Light Infantry or Riflemen – usually referred to as Hardee’s Tactics – provided basic training for young officers eager to learn the art of war.

Hardee served as commandant at West Point until shortly before his native Georgia seceded in 1861. He cast his lot with the Confederacy, and for most of the war he fought in the western theater, where he participated in the battles of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, and Chattanooga.[1] After the failure of General Braxton Bragg to take Chattanooga, President Jefferson Davis accepted his friend’s resignation and offered command of the Army of Tennessee to Hardee, who declined the position. Davis turned once again to his nemesis, General Joseph E. Johnston. During the Atlanta Campaign, Hardee led one of the army’s three corps, and performed satisfactorily in most engagements prior to the fall of Atlanta. When Davis removed Johnston, and replaced him with General John Bell Hood on July 17, 1864, Hardee felt somewhat slighted, despite the fact he had previously refused to take command of the Army of Tennessee. He and Hood never got along, and Hood blamed Hardee for several losses in the struggle to maintain Atlanta. During the final action of the campaign at Jonesboro, Hardee performed well, given the circumstances, yet again found himself on the receiving end of Hood’s blame game.

Requesting a transfer away from Hood, Hardee received the assignment to head the Department of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. During Major General William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea in November and December 1864, Hardee joined with other Confederate officers in the attempt to slow the advancing Federals. Operating from his headquarters in Savannah, Hardee garnered all available men to guard the outer and inner defense systems surrounding the city. On December 15 – five days after Sherman’s forces arrived at the doorstep of Savannah – Hardee dispatched Davis with his assessment of the situation. “Unless assured that force sufficient to keep open my communications can be sent me, I shall be compelled to evacuate Savannah.”[2] Two days later, Hardee received a reply from Davis, which set the plans for evacuation in motion. Davis, eager to protect a Confederate army in the field amid a dwindling supply of soldiers, instructed Hardee to maintain a vigilant observation of the Federal troop movements, while making “…the dispositions needful for the preservation of your army.”[3] On December 20, Hardee and his troops began evacuating Savannah, crossing hastily constructed pontoon bridges onto South Carolina soil.

For the balance of the war, Hardee attempted to slow Sherman’s progress during the Carolinas Campaign, and joined with Johnston in the last major battle in the western theater at Bentonville, North Carolina, where Hardee lost a son during the fighting. Moving to his wife’s plantation in Alabama after the war, Hardee served as president of the Selma and Meridian Railroad. Ill health prompted a visit to a sulphur spring in West Virginia, and during the journey, he died in Wytheville, Virginia, on November 6, 1873. ‘Old Reliable’ – a nickname his soldiers bestowed upon him during the war – rests in the Live Oak Cemetery in Selma, Alabama.[4] William J. Hardee proved a capable officer, one who sought to protect his native state against great odds.

[1] Ezra J. Warner, Generals in Gray; Lives of the Confederate Commanders (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 124–25.

[2] U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, reprint 1899 ed. Series I 44 (Harrisburg, PA: National Historical Society, 1971), 960.

[3] Ibid., 964.

[4] Michael R. Hall and Spencer C. Tucker, “William J. Hardee,” World at War: Understanding Conflict and Society, ABC-Clio, http://worldatwar2.abc-clio.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/ (accessed December 1, 2014).

Learn more about the Civil War in Kennesaw State University’s latest course, 1864-1865: The Conflict Draws to an End. Learn more and/or register for the class here.

imageMichael K. Shaffer is a Civil War historian, author, newspaper columnist, and lecturer. He can be contacted at: www.civilwarhistorian.net.