US Congressman Attacked at Camp; War’s First Torpedoes

Sunday, July 7, 1861

Clement Vallandigham wasn’t actually a secessionist. Neither was he a traitor nor an abolitionist. But to many, as an anti-war Democrat from Ohio, he was both of those things and more. The United States representative and Dayton lawyer was against slavery on moral grounds. He blamed radical abolitionists for secession and for the War that was quickly coming.

It wasn’t his views on slavery and abolition that were controversial, however. He was, afterall, a supporter of the Crittenden Compromise. Vallandigham was a northern supporter of the South’s right to secede. Not only did he believe they had every Constitutional right to do so, he believed the Federal government had no right to stop them, especially by waging a war.

Then, what was he doing visiting the troops at Camp Upton in Alexandria, Virginia? Getting pummeled with rocks and insults, mostly. The soldiers in an Ohio regiment from Cleveland recognized Vallandigham and let loose their disdain. They taunted him and threated to ride him out of camp on a rail. Yelling turned to rocks and punches being thrown.

Several officers acting as guides had to break up the brawl. After leaving the company of the Cleveland Regiment, the Congressman visited with a unit from his hometown. In it he met with friends and constituents, generally having a peaceful time.

The papers made much of this incident, leaving out mention of the friendly regiment. The Republican-leaning New York Tribune took it a few steps farther, reporting that Vallandigham panicked when he saw an effigy of himself being pelted with rocks and was chased out of camp. Other papers preached to the Union soldiers, extolling that his views were the exact opposite of what true soldiers should believe.1

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More Run-ins at Middle Creek Bridge

Arriving at Rich Mountain in western Virginia on July 2nd, Major Nathan Tyler and two companies of the 20th Virginia Regiment, were ordered to reconnoiter Middle Creek Bridge, fifteen miles to the front. This was the same bridge that hosted a sharp skirmish only the day before.

A mile or so before coming to the bridge, a loyal Virginia woman informed Major Tyler that a “very large army occupied the bridge” and Union cavalry was in the area. He and his two companies proceeded down the Pike until they were in sight of Union pickets. As the Confederate force drove them back, Tyler could see that it was indeed a large Federal force in his front. Wisely, he ordered his men to fall back. Before too long, they were back at their line on Rich Mountain. The Union troops did not pursue them.2

While the Federal force holding Middle Creek Bridge wasn’t quite an army, it was nearly a brigade in size with three regiments, a battery of artillery and a company of cavalry. Tyler’s small force could have done little more than fire a few shots and report back to Rich Mountain.

Commanding the 4,000 Union troops at Philippi, General Morris was ordered by McClellan to move his brigade towards the Rebels at Laurel Hill, near Leedsville. Early in the morning, Confederate pickets saw the Federal columns approaching. After firing a few shots at the leading regiment, they scurried back to the main defenses to inform General Garnett.

Morris’s orders were to make the Rebels on Laurel Hill think that they would face the brunt of the main attack. In reality, it was McClellan at Rich Mountain who would hurl the bulk of the Union troops at the Rebels.

From the Confederate earthworks, Garnett ordered the 1st Georgia Regiment to reinforce the pickets. Seeing two Union regiments advancing in line of battle, the Georgia boys charged and threw back the Federal regiments. Morris then settled his men into their own positions, a few miles to the front of the Confederates.

Meanwhile, Brig-General Jacob Cox left Camp Dennison, near Cincinnati, with the 11th Ohio Regiment. In a few days, he would meet up with the other regiments in his command at Point Pleasant, western Virginia. Cox was to clear the Kanawha Valley where Confederate Generals Wise and Floyd were operating. Unlike the counties which McClellan’s force occupied, the Kanawha Valley was largely pro-Southern. While Union movements in western Virginia are often seen as two separate campaigns, this was actually all organized by McClellan as a two-pronged attack.3

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The Capture of the S.J. Waring

The schooner S.J. Waring had been to sea for three days when the Confederate brig Jeff Davis pulled alongside her, 150 miles off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The Davis‘s captain ordered the Waring to surrender and claimed the ship for the CSA.

The Rebel privateers removed the Waring‘s charts, quadrant, provisions, crockery and other paraphernalia, placing it on their own ship. They also placed Captain Francis Smith, two mates and two seamen on the Davis, leaving two other seamen, a passenger and the steward, a black man named William Tilghman, on the Waring. The Confederates supplied the new crew, made up of five unarmed men.

The new Rebel captain ordered the United States flag to be taken down, cut up and resewn into a Confederate flag. Tilghman was outraged by this affront and vowed revenge.

With their booty, the Rebels set sail for the South, hoping to arrive at port in about a week. The prisoners, including Tilghman, were not locked up, but given free reign of the ship. What could possibly go wrong?4

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First “Torpedoes” Discovered!

Down the Potomac, near Aquia creek, the USS Resolute took notice of two large casks floating down the river. Curious as to their nature, a smaller boat was sent out to retrieve them. While towing them to the Maryland shore, one of the casks sprung a leak and sank to the bottom. The other, however, was in tact and being handled very carefully, as the Captain of the Resolute suspected they might be filled with an explosive.

“The evident intention of the design of the machine was to drop it down with the tide,” wrote Commander Rowan after examination, “and at a suitable distance to set fire to matches, and when it had swung across the cable, with one of the machines close under each bow, to explode in due time and to destroy the ship.”

The fuse for lighting the casks was contained inside the cask itself. Their use was clever, but rudimentary. Each contained two long, 40 foot fuses that were lit and then let go.

Rowan described the idea as “a wicked one.” And so it was. These were the first mines (then called “torpedoes”) used in the war.5

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  1. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham & the Civil War by Frank L. Klement, Fordham Univ Press, 1998. Also, The Record of Hon. C. L. Vallandigham on Abolition, the Union, and the Civil War by Clement Laird Vallandigham, 1863. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p259. []
  3. Lee vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  4. Harper’s Weekly, August 3, 1861. []
  5. Official Navy Records, Series 1, Vol. 4, p566-567. []
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US Congressman Attacked at Camp; War’s First Torpedoes by CW DG is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International

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2 thoughts on “US Congressman Attacked at Camp; War’s First Torpedoes

  1. Do you have the original source information about the “If I cannot fight. . . ” illustration?

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