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Daily Highlights/Updates (May 31, 2011)

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150 Years Ago: Friday, May 31, 1861

Ellen Sherman is packing up her St. Louis home; she and the children are moving back to her father’s home in Lancaster, Ohio. Today is her husband William Tecumseh (Cump) Sherman’s last day as President of the Fifth Street Railroad; he has served just two out the twelve months he had originally agreed to. Though it took some persuasion on the part of Sherman’s brother John and Ellen’s own political-involved Ewing family, Cump had accepted the command of Colonel of the Thirteenth Regular Infantry which he was appointed to on May 14. Though Cump had requested to raise this new Regiment at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri, General Winfield Scott had denied the request; he wants Sherman in Washington City. Knowing that Washington is not a safe place for his wife and five children – with a sixth child on the way – Cump had made arrangements with Thomas Ewing, Ellen’s father. Ellen prefers to be as close to her parents as possible, so she is very agreeable to the arrangement.

Also in St. Louis, two Union officers are reacting to two very different letters received from Washington that are dated May 16. U.S. Brigadier General William S. Harney is in shock to learn that he has been relieved of command after only a few weeks. He writes to Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, acknowledging that he received the instructions and officially relinquishes command, but at the same time is convinced that President Lincoln could not have approved this action. He believes this is all a mistake and informs Thomas that news from Missouri over the past few weeks was more animated and blown out of proportion than what politicians in Washington may think. Harney believes that things are best left in his capable command, but leaves his fate at the hands of the President.

But one man’s loss is another man’s gain. With Harney’s removal, this now puts Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon in charge. Lyon immediately assumes command of Union troops in Missouri. It’s the position he has been aiming for over the last several months as he recruited volunteers, secured the St. Louis Arsenal and weapons, and captured rebel Camp Jackson, all on his own initiative.

In Washington, U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair suspends all mail to the states that have seceded from the Union and closes accounts of secessionist postmasters. All remaining postmasters must take an oath of allegiance to the Union if they wish to retain their positions.

The Confederate government continues to make military appointments now that the government has been moved to Richmond. Today General P.G.T. Beauregard is given command of the “Alexandria Line” which includes all of northern Virginia.

From her home in New Brunswick, Canada, Betsy Edmonds writes a letter to her daughter Sarah Emma Edmonds. Sarah is better known as Private Frank Thompson to her comrades in the Second Michigan Infantry and she is now at Fort Wayne in Detroit after being mustered into service six days ago. Betsy is confused over her daughter’s behavior to pose as a young man and join a war in another country. She’s hoping that her words will reach Sarah and get her to change her course of action:

My dear child:

I take time to write you to let you know that your family is well. I received a letter from you today and I was much displeased. I implore you to give up this ruse and come home at once. This war is not yours, my child. Leave it to the Americans who fight each other, most foolishly, in my opinion.

If you will not leave the war, at least then leave that which causes you the most danger, and which must surely be your most constant trouble–that of seeming to be what you are not. Cast off the Yankee uniform and take back your skirts, Emma. Or if you must stay in this war, at least stay as the woman you are.

I pray daily for your safety. And I pray for the swift resolution to this foolish war which is ripping your adopted country apart.

Your loving mother,

Betsy Edmonds

Betsy closes with a final afterthought, telling her daughter not to bother writing her again until she can sign her “own rightful name” to the letter.

150 Years Ago: Thursday, May 30, 1861

Seventeen year old Lewis Thornton Powell leaves his home in Live Oak, Florida for the city of Jasper. He is the youngest of of eight children and son of a Baptist minister. He is considered to be quiet and introverted and cares a great deal for sick and injured animals. His fondness for nursing animals has led his sisters to give him the nickname “Doc.” In Jasper, Powell enlists as a Private in the 2nd Florida Infantry, Company I.

In Washington City, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln consults with the Maryland District Attorney concerning the case of secessionist sympathizer John Merryman, who is currently held in prison at Fort McHenry, Maryland without the writ of habeas corpus. U.S. Supreme Court Judge Roger B. Taney has demanded the release of Merryman, but Lincoln continues to ignore Taney’s judgement. Taney contends that: 1. According to Constitution President has no right to suspend writ of habeas corpus; and 2. Military can arrest only persons subject to rules and articles of war. As a result of Lincoln’s meeting, he asks Attorney General Edward Bates to present an argument for the continued suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

Lincoln also meets with his Cabinet to discuss the topic of black volunteers. Over the last two months the administration has received numerous appeals from white and black persons alike for permission to recruit free northern black men for Companies or even Regiments. Lincoln and his Cabinet oppose such a move at this time; not only could it push the border states closer to the Confederacy, but to employ black soldiers would imply equality, putting the slave system currently active in the border states in jeopardy. The Union position is that they are fighting a war against a group of rebels who seceded from the U.S. when they had no power to do so. The war is about preserving the Union, not ending slavery or fighting for equal rights.

General Irvin McDowell arrived at Robert and Mary Custis Lee’s former Arlington, Virginia home yesterday. Today he writes Mary Custis about her house, which is now being used as a Union base:

Mrs. R.E. Lee:

Madam: I am here temporarily in camp on the grounds, preferring this to sleeping in the house. I assure you it has been and will be my earnest endeavor to have all things so ordered that on your return you will find things as little disturbed as possible. Everything has been done as you desired with respect to your servants, and your wishes, as far as possible have been complied with. I trust, Madam, you will not consider it an intrusion if I say I have the most sincere sympathy for your distress, and I shall be always ready to do whatever may alleviate it.

Irvin McDowell

Having returned home from Springfield, Ulysses S. Grant writes his father a letter from Galena, Illinois:

Dear Father:

I have now been home near a week but return to Springfield to-day. I have tendered my services to the Government and go to-day to make myself useful, if possible, from this until all our National difficulties are ended. During the six days I have been at home I have felt all the time as if a duty was being neglected that was paramount to any other duty I ever owed. I have every reason to be well satisfied with myself for the services already rendered but to stop now would not do

All here are well. Orvil or Lark will write to you in a day or two and tell you how business matters stand. Write to me at Springfield.

Yours Truly

U.S. Grant

150 Years Ago: Wednesday, May 29, 1861

This morning U.S. Postmaster General Montgomery Blair meets with U.S. President Lincoln over General Benjamin Butler’s stance on runaway slaves. Blair is not anti-slavery but he agrees with Butler’s actions to declare escaped slaves as Union “contraband”, which in turn protects the former slaves from being returned to their former owners. Butler is also hiring the “contraband” to help out at Fort Monroe.

Lincoln calls the action taken “Butler’s Fugitive Slave Law” and approves of it. Though Blair doesn’t object to Butler hiring able-bodied men, he does not like the idea of Butler providing food and shelter to the women and children who are also coming to the Fort. Blair suggests that Butler “leave the Secessionists to take care of the non-working classes of people”, but also understands that it defeats Butler’s efforts – and the efforts of the former slaves – to try and keep the families together. Blair then suggests that Butler use them as spies “because they are accustomed to travel in the nighttime and can go where no one not accustomed to the sly tricks they practice from infancy to old age could penetrate.”

In Richmond, Virginia, the Confederacy has its first legislative session. Albert Sidney Johnston is appointed full General in the Confederate Army.

For the last few months Miss Dorothea Dix has been seeking approval to provide nursing services for the Union. She is finally authorized by U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron to hire nurses after promising that she will hire only older, homely women who are not looking for an adventure or romantic pursuits; Cameron also believes this will reduce the chances of men sinning with their bedside nurse.

In Washington, another bill is received for “curtain materials and trimmings of every decoration” from a Philadelphia merchant; this purchase made by Mary Lincoln for the White House totals $7,500.

In the capital city of Providence, Rhode Island, Elisha Hunt Rhodes is chosen by Major John Slocum to act as a clerk in the effort to chose 25 men to serve in the Rhode Island First Light Infantry. Nineteen year old Rhodes had arrived at the Infantry Armory several weeks earlier where he had enlisted along with an old schoolmate and had been elected First Sergeant. The volunteers had come after Lincoln’s second proclamation asking men to serve for three years or until the end of the war, whatever came sooner. Rhodes, along with approximately 100 others, had spent the days drilling and the evenings talking about soldiering. At night they were allowed to return home to sleep, as they were citizens, not true soldiers. It was during his time at the Armory that Rhodes begins a diary to record his journey.

Slocum, along with surgeon Francis L. Wheaton, are looking for strong, healthy men for the Infantry. Rhodes, who is acquainted with the men, is given clear instructions from Slocum. “We only want good men. Now when a good man comes up to be examined you look up. If the man is not right you just go on with your writing.” The first man to come into the room is Rhodes’s old schoolmate, Levi F. Carr. Carr is a big, strong young man; Rhodes looks up as Carr enters the room, and Carr is asked to take off his clothes for examination. After Carr passes the thorough examination by the doctor he is moved into the next room.

After Carr’s examination, Rhodes stands up and addresses the doctor: “I want to go.” The doctor protests, “Young man, you cannot go. You are not fit to be a soldier.” Rhodes begs, detailing the drilling and work he has done since his arrival. Seeing this exchange, Slocum asks Rhodes how old he is, if his health is good, if his father is alive (which he is not) and if his mother is willing to let him go. Though Rhodes’s mother initially did not want her oldest son leaving for war, she had eventually come to the conclusion that as other mothers were making sacrifices in letting their sons go, she should be no different. She had given her consent as that is what her son wished to do.

Rhodes’s answers are good enough for Slocum, who instructs Rhodes to put his name down on the list as one of the 25 chosen. Dr. Wheaton asks Slocum if Rhodes should be examined, to which Slocum gives a resounding “No!”. The doctor is still not satisfied, telling Slocum that Rhodes is too scrawny and will be in a hospital within a week, after which they will likely have to send him home. Slocum doesn’t care; if it happens, they will send Rhodes home. His mind is made up; Rhodes’s sincere enthusiasm and drive for wanting to become a true soldier and not just a citizen volunteer has impressed the Major.

Rhodes records in his diary that not all men are as lucky. He writes about a “large fine built fellow” who is known to bully the younger boys. Rhodes does not look up from his writing when the man enters the room. Dr. Wheaton does not give the man an examination. “You cannot go. You are not a well man.” The man, shocked, asks what is wrong with him. The doctor appears to not have expected that question, yet quickly answers. “You have a heart disease.” The man protests and denies the doctor’s claim. He insists on being examined, but the doctor declines. Though he likely did not have anything wrong with his heart, Rhodes’ judgment of his character alone prevents him from being chosen for this select group.

By late afternoon the 25 men have been selected for the Rhode Island First Light Infantry. Rhodes is given his first command to march them to the Cadet Armory and present them to Captain William Steere. Rhodes marches the squad through the city streets and when they arrive he forms the men into a line. He salutes Steere and presents the men. At first the Captain refuses to take the men. He had already formed his own company and is upset that he is to take this group of men instead. Rhodes does not know what to do, so they all stand there for some time. Finally Steere gives in to the situation. He asks Rhodes what his position was with the volunteer infantry; First Sergeant doesn’t mean anything here. Steere reclassifies Rhodes as a Private and tells him to take his place in line. Rhodes, unaware of any differences between a Private and Sergeant, doesn’t care.

The first night is difficult, as Rhodes and the others are no longer allowed to go home in the evening. They are directed to sleep on the uncomfortable floor of the Cadet Armory, though they do so with much noise and complaining. The men are still technically citizens and feel they should be able to do as they please. Unfortunately the simple days of drilling and talking are over. They are one step closer to becoming real soldiers, and the stricter rules now apply to them.

150 Years Ago: Tuesday, May 28, 1861

Missouri Major General Sterling Price responds to General William Harney’s telegram from yesterday. Sterling says that he and Governor Jackson are not aware of any activity in Arkansas. If troops try to cross into Missouri Price will send them back. Whether Price is aware of the communications between the Governor and Confederate Secretary of War Leroy Pope – which does give reference to Confederate troop support – is unknown.

U.S. General Irvin McDowell is appointed commander of the Department of Northeastern Virginia, with the main responsibility to protect the capital city of Washington.

Commander of Virginia forces, Robert E. Lee, writes a letter to his wife Mary from his new post in Manassas. Their Arlington home is now occupied by Union forces, and Mary is staying with family and out of harms way. The Lee’s know they have likely lost their home for good, but there is still discussion over where Mary should move to for the long term and Robert is very concerned for her safety.

I reached here, dearest Mary, this afternoon. I am very much occupied in examining matters, and have to go out to look over the ground. Cousin John tempts me strongly to go down, but I never visit for many reasons. If for no other, to prevent compromising the house, for my visit would certainly be known.

I have written to you fully and to Cousin Anna. I am decidedly of the opinion that it would be better for you to leave, on your account and Cousin Anna’s. My only objection is the leaving of Cousin Anna alone, if she will not go with you. If you prefer Richmond, go with Nannie. Otherwise, go to the upper country, as John indicates. I fear I cannot be with you anywhere. I do not think Richmond will be permanent.

Colonel Thomas J. Jackson had taken over a large section of rail in Maryland and Virginia a few days ago, but its today that John Garrett, the President of the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O) Railroad, acknowledges that over 100 miles of track is in control of the Confederacy.

The Richmond Daily Dispatch prints a disturbing warning to the North.

Hanging a game for two.

We can inform the Federal ruffians, newspaporial and military, that their darling idea of catching and hanging Jeff. Davis is likely to produce an effect which they have not altogether anticipated. There is another neck which is quite as likely to be broken as that of Jeff. Davis, and there are men who have ‘ “registered a vow”’ in Heaven of an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth, and a life for a life. It does not follow that because high public functionaries are surrounded by soldiers, and bloody-minded newspaper editors are crying on in supposed safety the slaughter of an unoffending people, that the means cannot be found of making them receive in their own persons the punishment of their crimes.

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney once again asks for Union General George Cadwalader to deliver John Merryman to his court. Merryman is being held in Fort McHenry and has yet to be charged with a crime. Cadwalader once again refuses to appear. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln is aware of this back and forth, yet also has chosen to ignore Taney’s ruling. Taney will start to write a draft outlining his reasons for his actions, and also plans to inflict find and imprisonment upon Cadwalader once he does finally show his face in Taney’s court room.

A few days ago the White House East Room was a place of mourning; tonight is serves as a place for celebration. President Lincoln and his wife Mary host a reception for civil and military dignitaries. The President looks to be in good spirits; husband and wife pass happily among the visitors, the party going well past the scheduled time.

150 Years Ago: Monday, May 27, 1861

Confederate President Jefferson Davis is expected to arrive in the new capital city of Richmond this morning. He will be staying at the Spotswood Hotel on Main Street.

From Fort Monroe, Virginia, U.S. General Benjamin Butler writes to General Winfield Scott about the issue of slaves. Butler has learned that Virginia citizens are using their male slaves in the Virginian batteries and are preparing to send the slave women & children south. Butler is receiving entire families of slaves who have escaped and are looking for protection. He has the idea to employ as many of them as he can, and will also insure proper food and care for all, keeping track of all expenses in the process. He feels that the number of people coming to his Fort could be very great, and looks at it not only as a political question, but a humanitarian one, as to whether this course of action is right. He has no doubt that it is the right thing to do on a human level, but is looking for input from Scott and Secretary of War Simon Cameron on the political course of action.

The body of Elmer Ellsworth is in New York City, where it will lay in City Hall for several days so people can pay their respects. The New York Times informs its readers on the state of his remains, as U.S. President Lincoln had him embalmed in Washington at the offer of Dr. Thomas Holmes. Embalming was a fairly new practice in the country, but it will become very popular during the course of the war. Based on the Time’s description, it appears that the art of embalming had not yet been perfected:

“The remains [of Ellsworth] were encased in a metallic coffin, the lid of which was so arranged that through a glass cover the face and breast could be seen. The body was dressed in the Zouave uniform of Colonel Ellsworth’s corps, but it was generally remarked, did not bear that natural look so often seen in cases of rapid death. The livid paleness of the features contrasted strongly with the ruddy glow of health that always characterized the Colonel during his lifetime. The marked features and the firm expression of the mouth were, however, sufficient to remind the beholder of what once was Colonel Ellsworth.”

The last few days have been difficult for the Lincoln family as they grieve for their young friend Elmer Ellsworth, but it must have improved their spirits when their oldest son Robert comes home for a vacation from Harvard.

On the corner of Washington Avenue and Swanson Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon has its opening today. The Saloon will provide free food, drink and comfortable lodging for soldiers heading into active field service, and also has a separate hospital to care for the sick and wounded. Local men and a large number of women will help keep it in operation during the course of the war, and many similar models will appear in cities across the country.

U.S. Brigadier General William Harney is getting concerned that his peace agreement with Missouri Major General Sterling Price is not the great treaty he thought it was. Not even a week has passed and Harney has just received a telegraph from Springfield, Missouri that rebel forces are being organized in Arkansas just near the Missouri border. Harney sends a telegraph to Price informing him of the situation, stating that “a contingency like this was not looked for” and he will obviously have to take care of matters in an effort to protect the state from a potential invasion.

150 Years Ago: Sunday, May 26, 1861

In Galesburg, Illinois, a woman sits in one of the pews in the back of the Brick Church on South Broad Street. The Reverend Edward Beecher hurries in and begins the Sunday morning service. He reads a letter from his pulpit written by Dr. Benjamin Woodward, who has practiced medicine in the town for the last several years. Dr. Woodward is now an assistant surgeon with the 22nd Regiment of Illinois Volunteers and he is in charge of several hospitals in and around Cairo, Illinois. In that regiment are approximately 500 Galesburg boys and men. The Reverend describes how the volunteers are “dying like flies” from contagious diseases, filthy conditions and poor food. Beecher asks his congregation if they would like to discuss the letter rather than hear the sermon, and the decision is made to talk through what can be done to help these men. Immediately there are pledges of medical supplies, clothing, food and money, but someone needs to be chosen to take these items to Cairo. No one is stepping up for the task, so the President of the local Ladies Aid Society suggests the woman sitting in the back: Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Bickerdyke had previous nursing experience and is thought to be a hard working woman. It would take several days to gather what is needed, but Bickerdyke agrees to go.

Major General Robert E. Lee sends a letter to Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown, calling attention to the fact that while many volunteers have arrived in Virginia from his state, most have come without arms. Lee expresses great concern, as Virginia’s own supply is quickly being depleted; the only thing that have not yet resorted to is utilizing the old flint-lock muskets. Lee asks for Brown to send any spare pistols, carbines or other weaponry to Richmond as soon as possible.

At Lee’s former Arlington home, the 8th New York Regiment continues to make themselves at home on the grounds and inside the large dwelling. The camp is settled at the rear of the mansion amid a beautiful grove of oak trees, where they also have a spectacular view of the Potomac River and Washington City.

In Washington, Postmaster General Montgomery Blair issues a statement that postal service will not be provided to the seceded states after May 31.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney, sitting in a courtroom in Baltimore, issues the writ of habeas corpus for John Merryman. Merryman had been arrested and taken to Fort McHenry yesterday, and his lawyer had immediately asked for the writ – but U.S. President Lincoln suspended it. The marshal for the District of Maryland presents U.S. General George Cadwalader with the writ, demanding the appearance of the general and Merryman to come before the court. Cadwalader refuses to appear and sends the court a letter asking for a delay until he receives instructions from the President.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis leaves the old capital of Montgomery, Alabama for the new one in Richmond, Virginia. His family will follow him in a week or two.

After weeks of internal struggle, Captain Lewis A. Armistead writes a letter to resign his commission in the Union army. He has almost a four month long trip ahead of him from Los Angeles, California to his home in Virginia. Before he leaves, his close friend Winfield Scott Hancock and his wife Almira throw a farewell party for him. It is said that Armistead put his hand on Hancock’s shoulder at the end of the night, tears flowing, and said “Hancock, goodbye. You can never know what this has cost me.” Armistead would not wait for a response from Washington; instead he would leave for Texas with the Los Angeles Mounted Rifles.

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