The Struggle for the Frontier States: Virginia

The Struggle for the Frontier States: Virginia

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The state of Virginia was, in 1861, one of the largest and most prosperous in the Union. Nicknamed "the Mother of Presidents" because of the number of her sons who rose to the supreme office (starting with the first of them, George Washington), Virginia was also the first English-speaking colony founded on the North American continent. , in 1607. From its seniority, it had kept a social structure based on an "aristocracy" of planters cultivating mainly tobacco. Like those operating the cotton plantations of the Old South, these families were both the guarantors and the inventors of the Southern “way of life”, the first slaves having been imported into Virginia soon after its founding.

Strategic situation

So the secession of the state was hardly surprising. The scene of the bloody slave revolt led by Nat Turner in 1831, and then the blind and fierce repression that followed, Virginia had since strengthened its militia to ensure its own security. The nullification crisis, which pitted the federal government against southern states over tariffs in 1832-33, heightened the need for a strong militia in the eyes of the Virginian rulers. John Brown's raid in 1859 did not fail to remind us of this double need to protect the state and its sovereignty. Consequently, the virginian militia was perhaps, in 1861, the best in the whole country. Well trained, it was also equipped with recent artillery.

The Federal Armed Forces, for their part, maintained three major installations in Virginia. Harper's Ferry Arsenal, target of John Brown in 1859, contained 100,000 rifles and large quantities of war material. In addition, it had just been modernized to assemble the new Springfield Model 1861 rifle, which was just starting production. Located in the north of the state, it was one of only two sites so equipped - the other being, as the name suggests, the Springfield Dockyard in Massachusetts.

Then came Gosport shipyard, located in Southeast Virginia, in the immediate vicinity of Norfolk Harbor. It was then one of the main arsenals of the Federal Navy, although the industrialization of New York had robbed it of the number one position in the construction of newer ships. Norfolk continued to be the primary site for the conservation and maintenance of 'ordinarily' - that is, put in reserve - a system necessitated by the chronic shortage of funds and crews facing the U.S. Navy was then confronted.

Finally, on a strip of land opposite Norfolk, on the other side of the James River estuary, stood the fortress Monroe. As its somewhat pompous name indicated, it was the largest fort ever built in North America at the time. The keystone of the coastal fortifications of Chesapeake Bay, it notably locked (with Fort Calhoun, located opposite) access to the James via the Hampton Roads channel.

Virginia in 1863, with the territory of West Virginia. In blue, the railway line Baltimore & Ohio. Period map, annotated by the author.

The militia takes control

Immediately after the secession of Virginia, its governor John Letcher ordered his militia to take possession of these facilities. The Harper's Ferry arsenal was the first target. As of April 18, several companies of Virginian militiamen marched on the city. The arsenal, which was hardly more guarded than when John Brown attempted to seize it, was evacuated by its tiny Federal garrison, who tried unsuccessfully to set it on fire. The precious machines, and in particular the towers used to bore the barrels of firearms, were dismantled and reinstalled in Richmond, where they supplied the Confederate armies with rifles (renamed for the occasion "Richmond model 1861") during the remainder of the period. war. Abandoned three months later by the Southerners, the Harper's Ferry arsenal was then razed to the ground by the Federals.

The Gosport shipyard was soon to suffer the same fate. This being better guarded than the Harper's Ferry arsenal (by a detachment of marines), the Virginians resorted to trickery to seize it. They took advantage of the complicity of William Mahone, future general and then director of the railway company Norfolk and Petersburg. He made his trains make incessant round trips, to make the northern garrison believe that the Virginians were massing large forces in Norfolk. The trap worked: Captain McCauley, who commanded the arsenal, did burn down before evacuating his men to Fortress Monroe.

Nine ships were sunk, but the great haste with which the operation was carried out did not result in a complete destruction of the facilities. The South therefore inherited a large number of cannons, as well as equipment enabling it to start building new ships. In addition, the steam frigate USS Merrimac had been set on fire but not scuttled: the Confederates were able to recover the hull, transforming it into a battleship, the CSS Virginia. With a few vessels requisitioned or taken from Revenue Cutter Service (the ancestor of the Coast Guard), the Southerners could thus constitute a marine embryo.

Things weren't so successful in the face of Fortress Monroe. Had they not been guarded by only a handful of soldiers as was the case in most pre-war forts, their guns might have been an easy target. But the discerning - despite being 77 years old - commander of the Eastern Military Department, General John Wool, had transferred as many troops there as possible over the preceding weeks. These reinforcements put the fortress sheltered from a helping hand and, unable to lay siege to it, the Virginians contented themselves with building a few fortifications on the peninsula at the end of which Fort Monroe stood. The Southerners consoled themselves by occupying Fort Calhoun, across the channel from Hampton Roads.

The Northerners strike back

Apart from these setbacks, the Union suffered another setback in the days following the secession of Virginia. Lieutenant colonel Robert lee, who previously served in a cavalry regiment in Texas, had been promoted colonel and recalled to Washington. He was considered a loyal Union officer and one of the brightest in the entire Federal Army; therefore, on General Scott's recommendation, Lincoln offered to take command of the Washington defenses. Born into one of those old and prestigious Virginian families, Lee remained true to his state, declined the president's offer, and resigned. A few days later, he took command of the Virginian militia. His defection would cause great harm to the Union, even if this was still unsuspected in 1861.

Initially, Federal forces refrained from any major military operation against Virginia. Secession was to be ratified by a popular referendum on May 23, and the northern government still had hopes that the state unionists would succeed in blocking it. Too bad: 78% of voters approved secession. In the meantime, the Northerners were content with small naval operations against the artillery batteries the Southerners had begun to install on the coasts of Virginia, particularly along the Potomac and around Norfolk. Half a dozen indecisive engagements thus took place until the end of June.

It was only after the ratification referendum that military operations gained momentum. With the loss of Virginia consumed, the secessionist state posed a double threat to the Union. On the one hand because of his obvious proximity to Washington, and on the other hand because if Lincoln had no military training, he had nonetheless noticed that the geographical position of Virginia threatened (like the rest of the Border states) the strategic depth of the Union. The railroad Baltimore & Ohio (abbreviated B&O), vital for communications with the West, crossed its territory, making it vulnerable to Southern actions.

The president therefore set out to resolve these two problems, starting with the immediate security of Washington. On May 24 he sent his friend Elmer Ellsworth, colonel of the 11th New York Regiment, occupy the city of Alexandria, in front of Washington, and the heights that surrounded it. Ellsworth had learned the legal profession from Lincoln, before actively working on his presidential campaign. He had set out to recruit a regiment of volunteers from the volunteer firefighters of New York, and had endowed them with a flamboyant gray and red uniform inspired by that of the Zouaves of the French army - hence their nickname of Fire Zouaves.

Supported by elements of the regular army, the "firefighters" met no resistance and seized their objectives. It was on this occasion that the federal government confiscated the vast property held by the Lee family, where it will establish the post-war Arlington National Cemetery. The operation still cost Ellsworth his life: noticing a Confederate flag on the roof of a hotel, he went to take it down but was shot by the owner, himself killed by a soldier. The Northerner press readily made Ellsworth a martyr, along with his first war hero.

Skirmish at Big Bethel

The southern forces did not remain inactive. As the ratification of secession meant war for his state, Governor Letcher ordered his militia to take control of Baltimore & Ohio. One of the soldiers who would carry out this task was Colonel Thomas Jonathan Jackson, a former officer turned professor at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in the Shenandoah Valley. Jackson was a touchy leader with sometimes strange behavior, decked out in behavioral tics that his future status as a legend of the Southern cause would greatly magnify thereafter.

Its exact role in operations around the Baltimore & Ohio remains controversial, notably through its biographer James Robertson. What is certain, however, is that the Confederates kept control of the railway until June, demolishing many bridges and successfully transferring dozens of locomotives and wagons to Richmond, horse-drawn if necessary - there was no direct connection between the B&O and the southern capital. The recovered railway material proved to be of great value to the Confederation, which was particularly disadvantaged in this area.

The Northerners, for their part, used their control of Fortress Monroe, in particular to enforce the blockade of the southern coasts, decreed by Lincoln on April 17. Controlling both the James River estuary and the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, the fort was ideally positioned in this regard. Several regiments of volunteers were transported there, and at the end of May, the command of these troops was entrusted to Benjamin Butler, the man who had "brought in line" Maryland, and whose taste for unilateral initiatives gave buttons to General Scott, the Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Army.

Butler used his forces to expand his control over the surrounding area, which for the remainder of the conflict would be known only as "the Peninsula." At the beginning of June, he sent a force of 3,500 men, under the orders of General Ebenezer Pierce, to test the Confederate forces facing him. The latter, commanded by John Magruder, were almost three times fewer in number, but they had hastily built country fortifications - with which the American Civil War fighters would soon become familiar - behind a small river, the Marsh Creek, near a baptized church Big Bethel. They were attacked there on June 10.

Completely inexperienced, the Northerners struggled to get into an attack position, and destroyed any surprise when one of their regiments fired at another - a consequence of the freedom left to volunteer units to choose their uniform. The disorganized attack that followed was unsuccessful, and the Northerners withdrew, leaving behind about 20 dead and 60 wounded - against 1 killed and 7 wounded on the Confederate side - as well as a certain amount of equipment. This insignificant skirmish on the military plan nevertheless inflated the southerner morale, while inflaming the northerner press. This would not cease, during the following five weeks, to push on the offensive to avenge the humiliation.

A state cut in two

However, the most decisive events for Virginia in the spring of 1861 were less military than political. Even more than Maryland, Virginia exhibited great geographic disparity. It stretched over both slopes of the Appalachians, from the Atlantic coast to the Ohio River. While the use of slavery made sense in the plantations in the eastern part of the state, on the other hand, the southern "particular institution" had little presence in the west. Without the political influence of the planters, secession proved to be very unpopular.

In fact, delegates who voted against seceding Virginia on April 17 refused to recognize the outcome of the ballot, meeting in Wheeling, the state's northernmost city, on May 13. They called on the Unionists of Virginia to meet them there the following month and, on June 11, a new convention met at Wheeling. She formed there nothing less than a self-appointed counter-government " restored government of Virginia », Declaring the Virginian institutions vacant and holding secession null and void.

Meanwhile, the federal government obviously supported the initiative and occupied Wheeling to protect the Unionists. At the end of May, he instructed the Ohio volunteers to invade West Virginia further and especially to regain control of the Baltimore & Ohio. The governor of Ohio appointed a brilliant staff officer to head his state's volunteers, who later converted to railway engineering, George mcclellan. Very ambitious, and considered an excellent strategist, he set out on May 26.

The Northerners took control of most of the region fairly quickly, meeting resistance for the first time only on June 3 in Philippi, near Grafton: the Confederates disbanded after only a few shots. This success opened up the eastern route for McClellan, contributing significantly to the takeover of B&O by northern forces. With control of the railroad secured, McClellan moved south from June 27, with the goal of pushing the Southern forces back across the Appalachians.

He encountered the main enemy force on July 11 at Rich Mountain. The Confederate commander, General Robert Garnett, had fewer than 5,000 men to oppose the 20,000 Northerners. After a two-hour fight in which a fraction of his forces was isolated, Garnett decided to retreat. He was killed two days later at Corrick’s Ford, in rearguard action to cover his withdrawal; Garnett thus had the dubious honor of being the first general killed during the conflict. Many more would follow - including his cousin Richard Garnett, two years later, in Gettysburg. As for McClellan, he was hailed as heroes throughout the North.

In fact, his victory would prove to be decisive. An offensive by General Lee, launched in August 1861, was unsuccessful, and the Northerners retained western Virginia. The restored government of Virginia organized, in the fifty or so counties under federal control, two referendums which resulted in their separation from the rest of the state: in a way, they in turn seceded ... but to remain in the Union, this times. The territory thus created, first named after the Kanawha River, became on June 20, 1863 the state of West Virginia. After that, the restored government of Virginia continued to claim sovereignty over other areas of Virginia occupied by Northerners, sovereignty which came into effect after the end of the war.

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