This Day in the Civil War

Monday Nov. 25 1861

It was a race against time and the USS Monitor, and time was running out for Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones of the Confederate navy. It was well known (at least in the higher reaches of the Confederate Navy Secretary’s office) that the Federal Navy was working on a revolutionary armor-plated warship. The South needed a counterpart, and the solution had been to refloat the partially-burned hulk of a ship called Merrimack which had been sunk in Norfolk Navy Yard when the Federal forces abandoned the area. The parts of the vessel damaged by fire were mostly areas that would have had to be removed to accommodate the new design anyway. The first load of armor plate was today received by Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, and sent on to Jones to become the skin of the reborn CSS Virginia.

Tuesday Nov. 25 1862

The USS Ellis had done noble service on her recent expedition. Last week she had conveyed her crew to New Topsail Inlet, N.C., where they had destroyed a huge Confederate salt works. This facility, in the words of Ellis’s Captain Cushing, was so large it “could have furnished all of Wilmington with salt,” a considerable quantity indeed when it is remembered that salt was a vital preservative in the days before refrigeration. Today, however, Ellis had fallen on hard times, specifically a sand bar on which she was quite stuck. Cushing tried for two days to refloat her, but today gave up and ordered her set afire to keep her from the enemy. “Having seen that her battle flag was still flying,” he wrote, “[I] trained the gun on the enemy so that the vessel might fight herself after we had left her.”

Wednesday Nov. 25 1863

The Battle of Missionary Ridge opened today with William T. Sherman attacking the north end, and making no progress against the troops of Gen. Patrick Cleburne. Gen. Joseph Hooker was attacking the south end, the Confederate left wing, with a similar lack of success. Around 2 p.m. the true attack began: U.S. Grant ordered Gen. George Thomas’ men to attack the center. Fighting straight uphill should have been disastrous for the Federals--but in one of the great mysteries of the war, the artillery had been improperly placed and could only shoot over the heads of the attackers. It was anticipated that about half the hill could be taken today, but the blue-clad fighters, outrunning their commanders, simply didn’t stop till they took the top of the hill. Lt. Arthur MacArthur, who much later in life would have a son named Douglas, won the Medal of Honor for his part in this charge.

Friday Nov. 25 1864

It was what a later day would call a terrorist attack: a plot by a group of Confederate agents to firebomb New York City, intending to create an inferno so fierce as to burn the city to the ground. Infiltrating the city from Canada, the party led by R. C. Kennedy had contracted with a chemist to manufacture incendiary grenades. These were planted at almost a dozen prominent hotels as well as, peculiarly, Barnum’s Museum. None of the hotel bombs caused any significant damage, and even the one at Barnum’s was promptly put out. Rumors swept the city, including one that implied the chemist intentionally made the bombs defective. Kennedy was eventually arrested, tried and hanged for setting the Barnum’s blaze.

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