Friday, May 2, 2008

THIS WEEK IN THE CIVIL WAR: April 27-May 3, 1862

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Effective April 25, “Blood, Tears, and Glory—The American Civil War, Day by Historical Day, changes to a weekly format, presenting a summary of that week’s events in the war. While the emphasis will continue to be on the Western Theater, all major events in the war will be recognized.

Lake Erie’s Rebels

Since January and Zollicoffer’s humiliating defeat in southern Kentucky at Logan Cross Roads (Mill Springs), every month has brought more bad news for the Confederacy. There have been crushing losses at Forts Henry and Donelson, Pittsburg Landing (“Shiloh”), and Island No. 10. Now there are looming threats by Federal armies on the Virginia Peninsula, in the Shenandoah Valley, and on the approach to Corinth, Mississippi. And, as if to dramatize the Union’s skyrocketing ascendancy, Federal authorities have just opened a big prison camp in Ohio primarily for Rebel officers and it is filling rapidly.

The camp is on Johnson’s Island, in Sandusky Bay on Ohio’s Lake Erie coastline. The island contains about 300 acres, partly wooded, and is about 2 and ¾ miles from the small city of Sandusky, which is 66 miles west of Cleveland. Construction of the camp began in November 1861 and the first trainload of 200 Confederate prisoners arrived in Sandusky on April 11, 1862, via a special train. The Sandusky Register described them as a varied lot, many of them short and thin, wearing a mixture of clothing of various styles and colors, and displaying attitudes that ranged from swagger to sullenness.

When it opened, the prison consisted of 17 buildings. It occupied a compound of 14 or 15 acres surrounded on three sides by a plank fence and on the fourth by a high picket fence. Sentinels occupied two block houses, one at the main gate and the other at a far corner of the fence. The first barracks for prisoners were one-story framed wooden buildings covered with shingles, divided into rooms of various sizes, heated with stoves. Wood for construction and, later, for firewood, was found on the island itself. Storehouses, a hospital, kitchens, and mess facilities were also built inside the stockade, with a garrison house for the guards outside the fence.

At first, prison life on Johnson’s Island was as pleasant as a prison could be. One of the first prisoners wrote to a Memphis newspaper how pleased he was with what he found ;

Altogether, Sandusky is the least disagreeable prison I saw or ever heard from. The officers in command are civil and courteous—the lake breeze robs the summer sun of his heat, the view of the city, lake and neighboring islands is fine, the restrictions on prisoners are few, and altogether it is a salubrious, pleasant place.

A typical day for prisoners began with breakfast at 6 a.m., with roll call at 7:30 conducted at each barracks by a member of the guard. Dinner was at noon and supper shortly before sundown. A band composed of guards played several selections at 9 p.m. and at 9:30 taps were sounded and all lights put out.

At first, food and creature comforts were plentiful. Ice and milk were distributed after breakfast, sutlers entered the compound to sell fruits, vegetables, and newspapers for sale, and mail came at mid-morning. A general store sold items at fixed prices. Rations, firewood, and clothing were also distributed in the morning. Prisoners were free in the afternoon to play games, sleep, walk, or make trinkets. In warm weather, prisoners—under guard—were allowed to bathe in the lake, and the Sabbath was observed as a quiet time, with religious services.

However, as reports reached the North of hardship endured by Union prisoners in Confederate hands, rations and privileges were periodically reduced in retaliation. Other problems, including hygiene, arose as the war went on, but hardship at Camp Chase never approached that suffered at Andersonville prison in the Confederacy.

By the end of the war, the Johnson’s Island prison had grown to 100 buildings housing as many as 2,600 male prisoners—and, in disguise, at least one women. Federal authorities were surprised when one of their prisoners gave birth to “a bouncing baby boy.” For the most part, however, life at the Johnson’s Island prison camp proceeded quietly until the end of the war—with one exception. In September 1864 the prison was the object of a Confederate operation known today as “The Lake Erie Conspiracy.” But that is a story for a later date.

ELSEWHERE IN THE CIVIL WAR: Sunday, April 27, was Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s 40th birthday, a day of which he made no special note but spent instead with routine duties arising from his Army of the Tennessee, encamped at Pittsburg Landing.

After two weeks of hurriedly trying to make the “undisciplined and very much disorganized” Union forces assembled at Pittsburg Landing look and act a little more like an army should, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck finally gave the order to start moving on P.G.T. Beauregard’s 67,000 Confederates dug in nearby at Corinth, Mississippi. Halleck’s advance units moved out on Monday, with the rest following on Tuesday. Over 100,000 men were involved, operating as three big corps. Maj. Gen. John Pope’s Army of the Mississippi formed the left wing of the advance, Maj. Gen. Don Carlos Buell’s Army of the Ohio the center, and Grant’s Army of the Tennessee the right wing. Grant writes Julia today, “Before this reaches you, probably another battle, and I think the last big one [in the Mississippi Valley] will have taken place.” Grant has no doubt of Union success in the battle and adds that he looks upon “our Chief, Halleck…as one of the greatest men of the age.”

“But “one of the greatest men of the age” has a surprise for Grant. On Wednesday, April 30, Halleck issued Special Orders No. 35, removing Grant from direct command of his Army of the Tennessee and giving him the meaningless position of “second-in-command” under Halleck. To add insult to injury, Halleck moved his headquarters to what had been Grant’s right wing and told Grant to stay nearby. This time-out from command was a bureaucratic sleight of hand intended to punish Grant for being caught off-guard at Shiloh without losing him to the service. Lincoln had, after all, taken a firm position on that: “I can’t spare this man; he fights.”

On Saturday, May 3, an unusually ebullient Halleck wired Secretary of war Edwin M, Stanton that “our army will be before Corinth to-morrow night.” Halleck’s three armies will, in fact, make steady progress for a few days. But then Old Brains’ natural caution will kick in, and the advance will slow to a crawl as Halleck worries about being caught off-guard and orders his men to entrench themselves every step of the way. Reduced to glacial speed, Halleck’s huge army will not occupy Corinth until the end of the month.

Meanwhile, on the Virginia Peninsula, another hyper-cautious Union commander, Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan, brings up siege guns and prepare to bombard Yorktown.. Before any serious damage can be done, however, the outnumbered. Confederates, under Maj. Gen. Joseph E. Johnston, evacuate Yorktown on Saturday, May 3. That renders the siege guns useless and McClellan’s long-delayed advance of the Army of the Potomac a waste of time.

In the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, Stonewall Jackson changes direction and heads for the Federals near Staunton. Within days, Jackson’s brilliant “Valley Campaign” will be underway, going down in the history books as a military exercise still worth studying a century and a half later.

IT’S COMING SOONER THAN YOU THINK: April 12, 2011—less than 3 years from now!—will be the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War. In 1861, April 12 was the day Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

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