Union Troops in Grafton!; Harney Out; Butler Keeps His Contraband; The Raising of the Merrimack

Thursday, May 30, 1861

With Union forces from the west drawing ever closer, Confederate Col. Porterfield had vacated the strategically essential railroad hub of Grafton, western Virginia for Philippi, fifteen miles south. Though Union Col. Kelley (from the northwest via Wheeling) and Col. Steedman (from the west via Parkersburg) had been delayed, Porterfield was taking no chances.

Kelley had repaired the two bridges destroyed by the Rebels near Mannington and, though his orders were to wait for Steedman, proceeded to Grafton upon hearing it had been vacated. Steedman, after four very cautious days on the rails from Parkersburg, had just reached Clarksburg, 30 miles west of Grafton.1

In the afternoon, Col. Kelley and his men entered the town of Grafton, once again flying the flag of the United States.

Expecting Steedman’s men (the 14th Ohio) shortly, Kelley planned to attack the Rebels in Philippi before they could receive reinforcements. Under his command, Kelley had the 1st and 2nd Virginia as well as the 16th Ohio (which caught up to him the previous day). His plan was to make a night march around Philippi, cutting off Porterfield and his Rebels from their escape route to Confederate-held Beverly, 30 miles south. While the plan might have been a good one, pulling it off would take more skill than a few regiments of raw recruits would have.

Kelley also expected the arrival of General Thomas Morris, commander of the Indiana troops (6th, 7th and 9th – also soon on their way). General McClellan had placed Morris in command of all troops in the theater. He was making his way to Grafton by rail via Parkersburg.2

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Harney Turns Away Recruits, Last Straw for Lyon

In Missouri, the truce between Missouri General Price (who was actually a secessionist) and Union General Harney, commander of the Department of the West, was taking its toll on the Union cause. Several days prior, an entire company of Zouaves, decked out in their baggy pants and turbans, approached Harney and offered their services to the Union cause. He told the boys to return to their homes, no fight was expected in Missouri.

The Zouaves then looked for Union General Lyon, Harney’s rival, who was vying for the position of Department commander. They told him of their plight, but Lyon, being subordinate to Harney, could do nothing.

That is, almost nothing. Col. Frank Blair, brother of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, had permission from the President to deliver Special Orders No. 135, written on May 16, relieving Harney from command. Lincoln urged Blair not to deliver the order until absolutely necessary. Lyon and Blair concluded that now was the time.

In the evening, an associate of Blair delivered the order from the War Department to General Harney in his home. He was now officially relieved of command. He was not reassigned or asked to come to Washington, he was simply given an indefinite leave of absence. 3

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Butler Allowed to Keep His Contraband

The issue with “contrabands” at Fortress Monroe was weighing on President Lincoln and his Cabinet in Washington. General Butler was taking escaped slaves into his lines, putting them to work (with pay) and writing it all off as the spoils of war. He figured that since the Rebels saw their slaves as property and used them towards their war effort, he could legally “seize” them as “contraband.”

Butler was unsure what the eventual ramifications would be, but, with the support of Postmaster General Montgomery Blair, he felt the President would come in on his favor.

The subject matter was discussed at a Cabinet meeting and on this date, Secretary of War Simon Cameron shared with Butler the results.

“Your action in respect to the negroes who came within your lines from the service of the rebels is approved,” wrote Cameron to an elated Butler. While Butler couldn’t actively free the slaves under his jurisdiction, he was given allowance to “refrain from surrendering to alleged masters any persons who may come within your lines.”

The General was to “employ such persons in the services to which they may be best adapted, keeping an account of the labor by them performed, of the value of it, and of the expenses of their maintenance.” However, “the question of their final disposition will be reserved for further determination,” said Cameron in closing.4

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The USS Merrimack‘s Life Far From Over

The Gosport Navy Yard, near Fortress Monroe and Norfolk, had been burned by the Federals on April 20th in hopes that the ships and armaments left behind would not fall into the hands of the rebels.

The USS Merrimack, a 3500 ton, 40 gun frigate was hoped to be lost. It, however, was not. On this date, Confederates raised her from the depths. Her steam engines were found to be in working order and her wooden hull was undamaged.

She would go into dry dock and would eventually be outfitted as an ironclad. But that was all in the future. For the time being, it was clear that the Merrimack’s life was far from over.5



  1. The Baltimore and Ohio in the Civil War by Festus P. Summers, Stan Clark Military Books, 1939. []
  2. Rebels at the Gate by W. Hunter Lesser. []
  3. Damned Yankee: The Life of General Nathaniel Lyon by Christopher Phillips, LSU Press, 1996. []
  4. Cameron to Butler, May 30, 1861, as printed in Private and official correspondence of Gen. Benjamin F. Butler, Volume 1. []
  5. Naval Battles of the Century by Francis John Higginson, W. & R. Chambers, 1903. []
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Union Troops in Grafton!; Harney Out; Butler Keeps His Contraband; The Raising of the Merrimack by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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