This Day in the Civil War

Monday Jan. 20 1862

The U.S. Army and Navy’s amphibious attack on Hatteras Inlet was not exactly setting any speed records in its execution. Part of this was by design, intended to avoid problems encountered in prior attack attempts in wintertime. For this reason it had been prearranged to sail in two groups, which were to rendezvous offshore and wait for stragglers to catch up so the attack could be made as a unified force, a not-insignificant factor given the vicious gales that could strike the coast in the wintertime. The rendezvous had been set for Jan. 13, and in fact the weather had been dreadful, with many ships driven onto shoals, sandbars and land. Today, however preparations for the initial attack, on Roanoke Island, were firmly in hand. A Confederate ship chancing on the scene hastened to alert Navy Sec. Mallory that he “there saw a large fleet of steamers and transports.”

Tuesday Jan. 20 1863

Havana, Cuba was something of a neutral port as far as Federal and Confederate shipping was concerned. As such it was magnet for newspaper reporters who were willing to make the sacrifice of living in a tropical paradise with attractive women and cheap liquor while in the pursuit of war news. One such correspondent wrote home to the New York “Herald” of an interview with Lt. John N. Maffitt of the CSS “Florida.” “Captain Maffitt is no ordinary character,” our correspondent confided. “He is vigorous, energetic, bold, quick and dashing, and the sooner he is caught and hung the better it will be for the interest of our commercial community.” Continuing in a slightly more moderate vein, he reported “Nobody, unless informed, would have imagined the small, black-eyed, poetic-looking gentleman, with his romantic appearance, to be a second Semmes, probably in time to be a more celebrated and more dangerous pirate.”

Wednesday Jan. 20, 1864

For all of American history it had been the ultimate responsibility of the Commander in Chief of the armed forces to rule on the verdict of any court-martial of a member of said forces in capital cases. In peacetime, of course, few such cases made it as far as the President’s desk, as the more usual punishment was fines, possibly imprisonment, and then dishonorable discharge. Under the stresses of war, however, the stream of orders of execution ballooned to vastly higher numbers. In many cases the charges were the same as those that would cause any civilian court of the day to impose a death sentence: murder of civilians, rape and the like. There was one category of offense, however, that was unique to the military, that of desertion. As the war dragged on this was becoming more of a problem, and more death sentences were being handed out. Five such warrants reached Lincoln’s office today, and he did what he almost invariably did, he suspended the sentences. This annoyed many generals, who pointed out that sanctions that were unenforced were ignored.

Friday Jan. 20 1865

Fort Fisher, N.C., had been a target of so many Union attacks over the course of the war that it seemed almost incredible to both sides that it had finally, actually, fallen to the Federals. On a large artificial hill called “The Mound” at the entrance to the inlet leading to the fort, a fire had been kept burning whenever it was safe for Confederate vessels and foreign blockade runners to enter the harbor. Not wishing to cause inconvenience, the new management had continued the custom. Today there came sailing two blockade runners, the “Stag” and the “Charlotte.” Seeing the cheerful fire blazing on the Mound, their captains happily sailed into harbor, relieved to have the long voyage, during which of course they were completely out of touch with news of the War, behind them. They were soon relieved of more than that, since as soon as the dropped anchor they were promptly arrested and their ships and cargos confiscated.

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