This Day in the Civil War

Tuesday, Jan. 7, 1862

For two days the forces of “Stonewall” Jackson had been sitting on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, lobbing shells at the town of Hancock on the Maryland side of the waterway. Despite this firepower, the town declined to surrender, and Stonewall decided January was not a good time to try an invasion of what was still technically Northern territory. Therefore today the bombardment was discontinued and the Confederates headed on towards the town of Romney in what is now West Virginia. Unfortunately, a heavy ice storm, not uncommon in the mountains this time of year, developed and made even walking difficult. An unexpected skirmish at Hanging Rock Pass complicated matters further.

Wednesday, January 7 1863

The newspapers of the Confederacy were as varied as those of the Northern states, much more a reflection of the opinions and personalities of their owners than is commonly the case today. They were frequently as critical of the policies and politics of the South as the Northern papers were. There was one issue, though, where there was unanimity of opinion, and it was a contest to see who could be loudest in denunciation of the Emancipation Proclamation that had been announced in Washington. The Richmond “Enquirer” was typical in its views: the proclamation was "the most startling political crime, and the most stupid political blunder, yet known in American history...Southern people have now only to choose between victory and death." Those who feel that slavery was a minor issue which would have soon faded out of Southern society without the need for war, may wish to reconsider.

Thursday January 7 1864

Yesterday Jefferson Davis had commuted the death sentence of a young private from Virginia. Today, although he could not have known of Davis’ gesture, Abraham Lincoln also set aside the ruling of a court-martial that a deserter be put to death, as military regulations prescribed. When asked for a reason, he could only reply wearily “because I am trying to evade the butchering business lately.” Under the regulations, all court-martial sentences of death had to be reviewed by the Commander in Chief, and Lincoln was notorious for commuting death sentences to terms of imprisonment, particularly in cases of desertion, most particularly if the offender was young. This infuriated many of Lincoln’s generals, who felt that the gesture undermined disciplinary efforts.

Friday Jan. 7 1865

In the early days of the War, the Union armies were infested with large numbers of “political generals”, men who had little or no military training or background, but nonetheless were given high rank to solidify support for the war effort from particular cities or ethnic groups. Benjamin Butler had been one of this group, after his Massachusetts militia had lifted a near-siege of secessionists around Washington in the first days after Ft. Sumter. Through a combination of talents for management and administration of occupied territories, he had hung on to general’s rank after most of his peers had been killed, cashiered, or convinced to leave for the good of their troops. In fact, although he had started as “general of volunteer militia”, the vagaries of war had left him second in line to U.S. Grant himself, should Grant come to grief in the lines of Petersburg. Butler’s last mission, the attack on Ft. Fisher, North Carolina, had been so badly botched that the howls for his ouster were coming from all quarters. Lincoln, acting on written request of Grant, today officially removed him from the seniority list, and his days of active command were over.

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