No Rest and Little Celebration for Christmas 1861

December 25, 1861 (Wednesday – Christmas)

For some, the first Christmas of the war was a time of rest, where drills and military formalities took a short day off. Around Washington, the mood was full of apprehension and gloom over the Trent Affair, as well as gloom, if the past year was considered in the equation. The eastern theater of war, save for Western Virginia and Port Royal, had seen what seemed like many Union setbacks. For southerners in Richmond, it was a time of hope and celebration. The Trent Affair seemed to be leading the United States headlong into a war with England, while the victories on the fields of battle generally favored the Confederacy. Many believed that the Union would have to attack soon or grant the Confederates States their independence.

In General Stonewall Jackson’s camp, church services took the place of military drill. Officers like Sandie Pendleton, Dr. Hunter McGuire and even Jackson himself enjoyed the frivolities this day provided.1

Though similar scenes were, no doubt, played out along the eastern states, the armies were not far from “business as usual.”

At Centreville, Confederate General Joe Johnston forwarded a message from a spy in Washington claiming that McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was about to advance. It would, said the spy, be at Johnston’s door by January 5th. Because of the dispatch, Johnston took time from whatever festivities he was attending to protest Jackson’s request for 5,000 troops, made just the day before. While he conceded that holding the Shenandoah Valley, where Jackson was stationed, was important, it was “of greater consequence to hold this point.”2

Confederate General John Floyd, meanwhile, celebrated the holidays by beginning his long march to Bowling Green, Kentucky. His Army of the Kanawha had been thoroughly whipped by Union General Rosecrans in Western Virginia, but could still be absorbed into General Albert Sidney Johnston’s Army of Central Kentucky.3

On the Union side, General George B. McClellan was sick in bed. Actually, he was very near death. On the previous day, McClellan missed his regular staff meeting, as well as a meeting with the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War. McClellan had been diagnosed with typhoid fever, which may not have actually been typhoid as we know it today. It was possible that he had dengue fever or even salmonella poisoning. “Typhoid” was just a generic term given for any number of diarrheal diseases. Needless to say, General McClellan had a fairly bad Christmas.4

Union commander of the Department of Missouri, General Henry Halleck, spent Christmas like he would spend any other day. An early Christmas present arrived in the form of confirmation that Rebel General Sterling Price had retreated past Humansville. He was still about 100 miles from the Arkansas border (his supposed destination), but was most definitely retreating.

With Price out of the way, Halleck renewed his vigor on wiping out the secessionists in central and northern Missouri. Halleck also sent artillery and infantry to Warrenton, where 800 Union troops were gathering to crush the insurrectionists. General William Tecumseh Sherman was also given his first orders since arriving at Benton Barracks after his leave of absence: “Have the battery at the North Missouri Railroad depot at 3 o’clock this afternoon and the Iowa regiment at the same place at 8 o’clock to-morrow morning.”

Most importantly, however, General Halleck sent General Samuel Curtis, a military governor during the Mexican War, to command the southwestern district of Missouri, creating the Union Army of the Southwest. The small army had three divisions under Franz Sigel, Alexander Asboth and Col. Jefferson C. Davis. Halleck himself had already placed Sigel in command in Rolla, where Curtis would soon make his headquarters. Sigel was to ready his division, focusing specifically on the cavalry.5

Clearly General Halleck was not about to let any festive spirit get in the way of duty.


To Establish a Confederate West Coast

Christmas Day saw the departure of Col. James Reily from the Confederate Army of New Mexico. Reily, originally from Ohio, had relocated to Texas in the 1830s, even serving in the Army of the Republic of Texas as a Major. In the pursuing decade, he negotiated with Daniel Webster a treaty between the United States and Texas, but being against annexation, he was ousted from his post. During the Mexican War, Reily led a US regiment, but after the war, as the politics edged closer to a war between north and south, he left the Whig party and joined with the Democrats, purely on the issue of slavery and became a secessionist. Just as the Civil War was breaking out, Reily was commissioned a colonel in the 4th Texas Mounted Rifles. He was seen as an ideal southern gentleman, on par with Robert E. Lee.

Reily had, thus far, spent most of the war marching to Fort Bliss with his regiment, but on this Christmas morning, he found himself saying good-bye to the men he commanded. General Henry Sibley, commander of the Army of New Mexico, had selected him for a diplomatic mission into Mexico.

Due to the problems Mexico faced internally, as well as with England, France and Spain, the states had become, more or less, autonomous. Riley was to be his representative to the states of Chihuahua and Sonora.

Specifically, he was to find out if Mexico was about to allow US troops to march across her land to invade the Confederacy from the south. If Mexico was going to allow this, Reily was to find out if Chihuahua and Sonora would come to the defense of the South, in effect creating a civil war in Mexico as well. He was also to broker an agreement with the governor of Sonora, along the Pacific coast, that would allow the Confederacy to establish a depot in the port of Guaymas. This would give the South a west coast, potentially opening trade with the east.

He would not return until April.6

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I Robertson. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1007-1008. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p796. []
  4. Army of the Potomac; McClellan Takes Command by Russel Beatie. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to resist saying that “McClellan had a crappy Christmas”? []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p460-462. []
  6. Sibley’s New Mexico Campaign by Martin Hardwick Hall. []

Stonewall Waits for Loring, Plans Attack Anyway; Floyd to Kentucky

December 24, 1861 (Tuesday, Christmas Eve)

Since the Battle of Allegheny Mountain, a week and a half ago, Confederate General William Loring’s Army of the Northwest had been slowly filtering into Winchester, Virginia to fortify General Stonewall Jackson’s numbers for a winter campaign towards Romney.

During the long wait, an anxious Jackson again attempted to break Dam No. 5. This time, Jackson accompanied his men, but still could do no permanent damage to the dam. Though a full breach would have been wonderful, for Jackson, this seemed as if it were merely something to pass the time until General Loring finally made it to Winchester.

By the 21st, Jackson was back from the dam busting and, still, Loring was absent. Three days later, on the morning of Christmas Eve, Jackson wrote to the head of the Department of Northern Virginia, full of worry.1

“As yet General Loring has not arrived,” wrote a distraught Jackson, “and as he has not reported to me the strength of his command I am unable to give it, except by estimate based upon the number of his regiments.” Through scouts, Jackson had learned that the Union troops near Romney now numbered nearly 10,000 and were being reinforced daily. With Loring’s Army, he would perhaps have 7,500 at his disposal.

“I would respectfully urge upon the commanding general of the department the importance of sending me at once 5,000 good infantry and the First Virginia Cavalry, or its equivalent, and also a battery of four guns,” Jackson asked, hoping for the best. To possibly sweeten the deal, he promised to return all reinforcements “after the Federal forces shall have been captured or driven out of Hampshire County.”

Jackson then tried to read the minds of the Union generals. He mused that General Kelley in Romney was most likely planning on moving his force, first to Martinsburg, where he would join forces with General Banks. Naturally, Jackson wanted to hit Kelley before he had a chance to either gain more reinforcements or join with Banks.

While Jackson was writing the dispatch, General Loring rode into camp and immediately got under Jackson’s skin by telling him that Secretary of War Judah Benjamin “left it optional with him whether to bring his troops from the Monterey line or not, and he has decided not to bring any more of these troops here.”

With the enemy gaining more troops every day, and Jackson set to receive no more, there was only one thing that he could do: “attack him at the earliest practicable moment.”2


Floyd to Kentucky, but Not Quite Yet

Confederate General John Floyd, former Secretary of War under President Buchanan, had been licked in Western Virginia. The remnants of his Army of the Kanawha had retreated to Dublin, Virginia, fifty miles southwest of Roanoke. They were cold, penniless and, according to Floyd, “going off rapidly.”

To curb their flight, Floyd wished for both money and supplies as, “many of our people are without a dollar and in great need.”3

On December 16, Floyd and all but one regiment of his command was ordered to reinforce General Albert Sidney Johnston in Bowling Green, Kentucky as soon as possible.

By Christmas Eve, however, it was still impossible to move his men. Secretary Benjamin told Floyd to make sure that “no further delay occur in making this movement than such as may be absolutely necessary to put your troops in proper condition for movement.”4

Floyd’s move to central Kentucky was not only anticipated by the Union forces in that region, but, on this date, James Barnet Fry, General Buell’s adjutant, reported that Floyd’s brigade had already arrived at Bowling Green. In reality, Floyd was about 400 miles east.5

It had only been four days since General A.S. Johnston asked for Floyd to be sent to Kentucky. Secretary Benjamin promised that Floyd’s 2,500 men would be there by Christmas.6

It would take Floyd a bit longer, though, surprisingly, not by much.

  1. Stonewall Jackson by James I. Robertson. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1004-1005. []
  3. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1006. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p1000. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p515. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p779. []

Davis Has Empty Words for Sterling Price; Wise Has a New Job

December 21, 1861 (Saturday)

In Missouri, General Sterling Price had not been feeling very loved by the Confederate Government. His command, the Missouri State Guards, was still an independent command and in great need of reinforcements.
The closest troops were under General Ben McCulloch, whom he had fought with at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. McCulloch, who was in Arkansas, refused to go north for the winter and Price was left stranded near Osceola, in the western central part of Missouri.

On November 10th, Price wrote to President Davis, explaining the embarrassing situation in his state and pleading for Richmond to send more troops.1 It wasn’t until December 20th that Davis found the time to reply. He assured Price that he had not been forgotten. Richmond was, said Davis, “most anxious to give to Missouri all the aid in our power, and have been hopefully looking for the tender of troops from Missouri and Arkansas, to be organized into brigades and divisions under the laws of the Confederate States.”

Unfortunately, the Confederate military had “at present no troops to give you except those under General McCulloch, and you are aware of their condition.” No matter the condition of McCulloch’s troops, however, they simply were not going to assist Missouri.

“You may rest assured that the welfare of Missouri is as dear to me as that of other States of the Confederacy,” wrote Davis in hollow closure, “and that I will do all in my power to assist her in her struggle to maintain the common cause and to vindicate her freedom and sovereignty.”2

It was not because of this letter, which wouldn’t reach General Price for another week or so, that he decided to move farther south. He issued marching orders the same day that Davis penned his reply, and on the morning of this date, he moved out. His destination was Springfield, where he had begun his ill-fated and lumbering campaign after the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

In Springfield, they would establish a winter camp and try to rebuild the army. This new base of operations would put him closer to his supplies, which were in the southwest corner of the state. Little by little, his command would be transferred into the Confederate Army, but that alone would not make it ready for battle. At this point, the Missouri State Guard was in a condition that would only allow retreat.3


General Wise Given Command in North Carolina

Confederate General Henry Wise had been relieved of duty on September 25th, as the Army of the Kanawha was dug into the hills of Western Virginia with General Robert E. Lee at its head. As the fighting ground to a halt, the feuding between Wise and General Floyd ended with Wise being sent back to Richmond to await further orders.

Once in Richmond, Wise suffered a severe illness probably brought on by exposure to the extreme cold and wet of his late campaigning. While Richmond tried to figure out where to place him, Wise was confined to a sick bed, where he remained for weeks.

Once he recovered somewhat, he submitted a report detailing his part in the failed Western Virginia campaign. Though he was certainly not the greatest General of the War, or even the greatest General of the campaign, it was certain that he loved his men, his Wise’s Legion. In fact, through the entirety of his time in Western Virginia, his first concern (often to a fault) was that the regiments in his Legion be kept together.4

On November 18, Wise reported for duty from Rolleston, his plantation near Norfolk. The first item he mentioned in a letter to Judah Benjamin, Secretary of State, was a “request that the forces composing my Legion may without delay be ordered to the point at which the President intends to employ my services.”

A reply from Secretary Benjamin was received a week or so later. The Legion was, at this point, near Cotton Hill, sparring with Union General Rosecrans troops. Since the outcome of the battle was still up in the air, the fate of the Legion was up in the air along with it.

By the beginning of December, with Floyd’s army retreating and things seemingly lost in the southern part of Western Virginia, Wise’s Legion was ordered east.5

Finally, on this date, General Wise received his orders. Special Orders, No. 272 placed Wise in commander of a military district in the Department of Norfolk in North Carolina. This included Roanoke Island. His Legion was to soon follow. Both Wise and his Legion were under the immediate command of General Benjamin Huger, a Mexican War officer and career military man.6

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 3, p735-736. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 8, p716. []
  3. General Sterling Price and the Civil War in the West by Albert E. Castel. []
  4. The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia, 1806-1876 by Barton Haxall Wise, The Macmillan Company, 1899. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 9, p122-124. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p715. []

Stonewall Jackson’s Winter Plan; Kentucky Secedes (Sort Of)

November 20, 1861 (Wednesday)

Just south of Winchester, Virginia, Stonewall Jackson, now reunited with the brigade that bore his name, was planning a winter campaign.

Union reports of the time asserted that Jackson had as many as 26,000 men. Jackson, on the other hand, supposed Union forces poised to invade the valley were around 40,000. In truth, a division of around 15,000 under Union General Nathaniel Banks was near Williamsport, Maryland, while there were roughly 10,000 between Romney and Martinsburg.1

While Jackson had only 4,000, he had two things working in his favor. First, the Union believed his number to be much, much greater than it was. Second, Union troops near Williamsport were in the Army of the Potomac, while those at Romney and Winchester were actually part of Department of West Virginia, under General Rosecrans.

Jackson’s plan, which he detailed to Secretary of War Judah Benjamin on this date, first required more troops. The campaigning in the mountains of Western Virginia was mostly at an end, and Jackson requested the 5,000 men of General Loring’s command (called the Army of the Northwest) to join him at Winchester.

With 10,000, he would then attack Romney. The several thousand Union troops stationed there were mostly guarding the B&O tracks, but, if left unattended, could be a threat to Winchester. Jackson conceded that the attack on Romney might coax General McClellan’s Union Army of the Potomac to attack the Confederates near Manassas, but if it did, Jackson’s force would quickly swoop down upon them and continue to the next part of his plan.

Jackson believed that northern Western Virginia [now northern West Virginia] should be occupied by Confederate troops for the winter. He believed that the Union wasn’t expecting any action on the front until spring. If they pounced upon them now, they would be ill-prepared and outnumbered.

Of General Floyd’s whipped Army of the Kanawha, now retreating in southern Western Virginia, Jackson wished for them to keep retreating so as to not be cut off. Once the northern part of Western Virginia was secure, the southern part would have to be evacuated by the Union.

The campaign, Jackson allowed, would be “an arduous undertaking,” requiring the soldiers to sacrifice “much personal comfort.”

“Admitting that the season is too far advanced, or that from other causes all cannot be accomplished that has been named,” concluded Jackson in a bid to secure Loring’s men, “yet through the blessing of God, who has thus far so wonderfully prospered our cause, much more may be expected from General Loring’s troops, according to this programme, than can be expected from them where they are.”2

Jackson’s request would have to first go through General Joe Johnston before reaching Secretary Benjamin.


Mason and Slidell Request to Not Go to Boston, Promise Not to Escape

Captain Charles Wilkes of the USS San Jacinto arrived at Newport, Rhode Island with his two prisoners, James Mason and John Slidell, Confederate envoys to Europe, captured aboard the British steamer Trent. They were ordered to be imprisoned at Fort Warren, off Boston, but the San Jacinto was low on coal and had to put in at Newport for refueling.

This layover allowed Wilkes to send and receive a few messages. Along the way, Mason and Slidell had been allowed newspapers and had been privy to the San Jacinto‘s short supply of coal. The papers told them that the United States intended to keep them as prisoners at Fort Warren. They were not, however, incredibly thrilled with their near-future accommodations in the freezing Boston Harbor.

“The voyage from Newport to Boston by sea at this season of the year will probably be tempestuous and disagreeable,” wrote Mason, Slidell and their two secretaries to Captain Wilkes, “still we should with the exception of one of the signers of this letter who is much indisposed prefer that mode of conveyance to Fort Warren to that by land.”

Probably knowing that they were pushing their luck, they asked for more, telling Wilkes that they “would much prefer to be placed in custody at Newport on account of comparative mildness of climate and the delicate health of the undersigned, and we are willing to pledge ourselves not to make any attempt to escape nor to communicate with any person while there unless permitted so to do.”

Wilkes telegraphed their request to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, who would not reply until the following day. The prisoners’ request was denied. To Boston they would go!3


Kentucky (Sort of) Secedes from the Union!

For the past two days, pro-Secessionist delegates met at Russellville in southern Kentucky in order to pass an Ordinance of Secession and to establish a pro-Confederate government. On this date, the Ordinance was passed.

Be it ordained, That we do hereby forever sever our connection with the Government of the United States, and in the name of the people we do hereby declare Kentucky to be a free and independent State, clothed with all power to fix her own destiny and to secure her own rights and liberties.

Unlike most Southern states before her, Kentucky’s population and legislature were irreconcilably divided on the issue of secession. Because of such a division, the state had attempted to remain neutral. With the majority of the legislature being pro-Union, and the governor being pro-secession (not to mention that both Confederate and Union forces had plans for the state), Kentucky’s neutrality was a pipe dream.

They also passed a provisional constitution, which read like most other provisional constitutions until Section 15, anticipated their acceptance into the Confederate States of America. George Johnson, an anti-abolitionist and recent pro-Unionist, was appointed Governor.4


Unionist Creeks Escape with their Families

The fight between two factions of natives within the Five Civilized Tribes of Indian Territory [modern Oklahoma] continued. Confederate Indians and Texans under Col. Douglas Cooper and armed Unionist Creeks, Seminoles and freed blacks, under Opothleyahola, had kept up a sporadic fire throughout the night as the Unionists slipped away to join their families fleeing north towards Kansas.

The camp of Opothleyahola and his followers had been quickly abandoned. The Confederates found wagons and provisions, but no trace of the Unionists, who had slipped from the Creek Nation into the Cherokee Nation, after fording the Arkansas River in the dark.5

  1. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p650-651. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p965-966. Also, tons of help from Stonewall Jackson; The Man, The Soldier, The Legend by James I. Robertson, Jr. []
  3. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1095-1096. []
  4. Kentucky’s Ordinance of Secession and Provisional Constitution are reprinted in “The Alleged Secession of Kentucky” by A.C. Quisenberry, appearing in Register of Kentucky State Historical Society, Volume 15, 1915. []
  5. The Cherokee Nation in the Civil War by Clarissa W. Confer. []

Mason & Slidell to Remain Prisoners; Floyd Beaten, but Not Destroyed

November 16, 1861 (Saturday)

Washington, DC was awash in the rumors that the Confederate envoys to Europe, James Mason and John Slidell, had been captured en route to England. Captain Charles Wilkes, who had seized and was delivering the diplomats to New York, had dispatched a messenger, Captain Albert Taylor, to meet with Naval Secretary Gideon Welles. He passed through Baltimore in the morning, letting slip some of the news, before taking a special train to Washington.1

By noon, the train carrying Taylor chuffed into Washington Depot. With him arrived the first word of how Mason and Slidell had been captured aboard the British vessel Trent.2 Though the weather was dreary and overcast, the spirits of the people were ecstatic with the news. With the exception of the little campaign in Western Virginia, the North was being handed defeat after defeat at Big Bethel, Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, and Ball’s Bluff. The capture of Mason and Slidell nearly made up for it.

In fact, it almost seemed like the tide was turning, especially in the capital, where General McClellan’s Army of the Potomac was fully ready for battle and sure to march out any day now. This news, coupled with the Union victory at Port Royal, was exactly what the nation needed.

While some in Lincoln’s Cabinet, like Secretary of War Simon Cameron, rejoiced at the news, others saw dark clouds on the horizon. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, accompanied by Senator Charles Sumner, met with Lincoln, hoping to convince him to let Mason and Slidell go. This whole event reminded the President of a story and the Secretary and Senator left in a huff.

Lincoln, a lawyer by profession, was well aware of these dark clouds. The War of 1812 had been fought over a similar event. There was every reason to believe that England, who already officially given the Confederacy the recognition of a belligerent (stopping short of recognizing them as a sovereign state), would be compelled to side with the South.

Still, it was clear that the North needed a boost of morale. It was decided. Mason and Slidell would remain prisoners of the United States and be confined at Fort Warren, a newly-completed star-shaped fort in Boston Harbor.3

The San Jacinto had left Fortress Monroe the previous evening with the prisoners on board. Wilkes had wired Welles during the stop over to let him know that Mason and Slidell had been captured and that he was taking them to New York. Welles replied to the New York Navy Yard that the San Jacinto was to be sent to Fort Warren. In a joint telegram, Secretary of State William Seward and Secretary Welles dispatched a US Marshal to board the ship, disallowing anyone to leave, and to convey it to Boston.4


Floyd Beaten, but Not Destroyed

After a series of slight skirmishes, Confederate General John Floyd had retreated nearly forty miles in the previous week. His supposedly impregnable artillery position overlooking the Union army of General Rosecrans had been given up with very little effort. He and his small Army of the Kanawha were digging in at yet another impregnable position, just south of Raleigh, Western Virginia.

Originally, Floyd had hoped to winter his army at Raleigh, but since he arrived, he noticed that the area surrounding it had been stripped bare of forage by the Virginia Militia and, more recently, by his own men. To make matters worse, the road heading southeast was “almost impassable.”

Floyd’s land of plenty existed, but it was twenty miles farther, on the banks of New River. He would be starting for it in short order.5

The Union forces pursuing were recalled by Rosecrans, who had been frustrated that Floyd’s entire army wasn’t captured, as it could have been if orders had been followed.

“Floyd’s forces, though beaten and demoralized,” reasoned Rosecrans, “are not destroyed, and must be watched.” 6

  1. New York Times, November 17, 1861. []
  2. New York Times, November 18, 1861. []
  3. Diplomat in Carpet Slippers by Jay Monaghan, Bobbs-Merrill, 1945. []
  4. Official Records, Series 2, Vol. 2, p1092-1093. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p287-288. []
  6. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 5, p252. []